My Boss will run for President of Palestine

Pamela Olson
1 December 2004

Dr. Mustafa Barghouthi announced in Jerusalem on Monday, 29 November, that he will run in the upcoming historical elections for Palestinian President.

The setting was significant, because he entered East Jerusalem, his birthplace, without an Israeli permit. Israelis would say this was illegal, but Palestinians would say that being forced to ask Israel's permission to enter occupied Paletinian East Jerusalem is illegal under international law.

This bit of civil disobedience put Israel over a barrel. If they didn't arrest him, it would be a tacit acknowledgment of his right to enter East Jerusalem without their say-so, a small paving-stone on the road to East Jerusalem's liberation.

If they did arrest him, he'd get to play the righteous victim, invoke international law in a compelling public manner, create a stir, enjoy some publicity along with maybe a few broken bones (last time he gave a press conference 'illegally' in Jerusalem, in 2002, he was arrested and beaten, his kneecap broken), and score major points with the Palestinian public.

I was holding my breath all through the standing-room-only press conference at the Ambassador Hotel, where at least a dozen cameras were pointed at Dr. Barghouthi as he spoke humbly and eloquently in Arabic and English, and even answered a question at the end in perfect Russian. (He received his MD in Moscow, where he spent seven years, and also has a Master's degree from Stanford, class of '95.)

He stressed the need for new blood in the stultified old guard of the Palestinian Authority, while making it clear that he respected the sacrifices and years of struggle on the part of Arafat's party. He's very young, born the same year as my mother, whereas Arafat's buddies are mostly septuagenarians who've spent most of their lives in exile.

He spoke of the need for democracy, transparency, and equal rights for all Palestinians, and above all an end to corruption. He said scholarships are often given only to students with 'desirable' political affiliations in Palestine, and such practices must stop. He affirmed his commitment to a two-state solution with '67 borders, East Jerusalem as Palestine's capital, and rights for refugees.

He also stated unequivocally that the militarization of the Intifada was a mistake on the part of the Palestinians. He called for only non-violent resistance and civil disobedience from here on out while at the same time engaging in internationally-brokered negotiations with Israel, which should begin as soon as possible.

He fielded difficult questions without missing a beat, and had the crowd in the palm of his hand with his humor, eloquence, knowledge, and a position that most Palestinians can accept but that even America would have difficulty arguing with.

He reminded us that 80% of Palestinians are under the age of 33 and are striving for opportunity, participation, and the hope of a better future. Significantly, in the most recent poll (not yet published), Mahmoud Abbas (aka Abu Mazen of Fatah, Arafat's party, widely regarded as the favorite in the upcoming elections, who is already being visited by White House officials as if he's already been elected) received 41% of support while Dr. Mustafa received 40%.

Pleasing the punch out of those democracy-pushers in the White House, putting a serious dent in Israeli propaganda by becoming "The Second Democracy in the Middle East", and giving Palestinians a voice, rights, and equality in a form the West can't argue with and Palestinians could participate in and work with -- all this might give Palestine enough support and breathing room to destroy the concept and practice of occupation for good and build something strong in the 22% of their ancient lands allotted to them.

Dr. Barghouthi is a former Communist Party leader, and the ideals of social justice and equality are strong in him and his supporters. If a new Palestinian leadership keeps social justice ideas in their minds while doing the Western-style capitalism/democracy dance, things could go in a very promising direction once the occupation ends, the dust of 50 years' worth of celebration settles, all that was lost is rebuilt, the ties that were severed are re-established, and people can start thinking about the long-term.

When Palestinians finally enjoy freedom and self-determination, and if they keep close in their hearts the consequences of social injustice, and while they have the world's ear and support as the newest nation, it could be a very inspiring show. It would certainly be a better victory and inspiration for democracy in the Middle East and around the world than the Iraq fiasco.

And if Bush wants to sign his name to it without doing any of the work (except keeping Israel off Palestine's back enough to give the whole thing a chance), if he wants to use his new mandate to concentrate on his legacy as Captain Democracy Crusader instead of pleasing the Zionist and Christian Coalition lobbies back home, ahlan wa sahlan. He is welcome.

I left the conference with my head in the clouds. Cameras followed Dr. Barghouthi out of the hotel and to his waiting car, where he gave a few more interviews, smiled and waved, and then drove back to Ramallah without incident. I felt proud to be human, and more hopeful than I've been in a long time.

Walking back to the Old Town to catch a service taxi to the Qalandia checkpoint, I caught sight of the golden dome of the most famous site in Israel/Palestine, the Mosque of the Dome of the Rock, and I decided to visit it for the first time. The area around the Mosque is huge, paved in white stone, and wooded in some areas. Palestinian kids were playing soccer near the King Faisal Gate. The Dome of the Rock itself was magnificent against a crisp blue sky.

Near the holy Muslim site, I was stopped by Israelis with guns who questioned me for a few minutes. They asked among other things if I was Muslim, which I didn't think was any of their business. But I answered their questions, and they let me go.

On the way back to Ramallah, we passed several sections of the grotesque Wall running down the middle of Palestinian towns and neighborhoods, arbitrarily dividing one side of the street from the other. Some sections have holes knocked in them so people can pass through with some difficulty. In those places, the Wall only serves as a nuisance, an ugly obscenity, a constant reminder of oppression and occupation, and a grave threat that can be sealed off at any time. And a shocking physical manifestation of mass insanity, racism, and delusion. Every single time I see it, my stomach turns to water.

America ignored Ralph Nader in 2004 (who, by the way, is Lebanese-American -- how nice if the Middle East could spread a little democracy to us).

But here in Palestine we have a strong, new, young reform party candidate proposing something fundamentally different from the antiquated Old Guard, and people are responding to it. The guy might even win. If nothing else, he's pushing Abu Mazen toward democracy and reform. In an informed, educated, and politically active populace, the system might actually work.

That is, if Israel allows it to work.

Two days after the conference, Israel is still not making any arrangements to allow free movement for Presidential candidates -- except for Abu Mazen, the frontrunner. None of the other candidates have even been given permission to travel to Gaza, where about 1/3 of eligible Palestinian voters reside. And Dr. Barghouthi still has to risk arrest if he wants to campaign in his future capital (insha'Allah) and birthplace, East Jerusalem.

Whether intentional or not, this Israeli bias for Abu Mazen hinders and might even delegitimize the results of the democratic process in Palestine. If Israel is truly interested in peace, justice, and democracy, they must:

    a) Allow free movement for all Presidential candidates in all of the Palestinian Territories;

    b) Cease their violence, including arrest and assassination campaigns, incitement, cruelty at checkpoints, and incursions, at least until after the elections are over. This will give Palestinians hope that a peaceful future is possible and much more faith in the possibilities of a democratic regime and in a new round of peace talks (and in Israel's intentions); and

    c) Allow all Palestinians free movement within the Palestinian Territories on election day and, ideally, in the days leading up to the elections so citizens can campaign and canvass for their chose candidates. No arrests at checkpoints (in fact, no internal checkpoints at all), and no harassment or intimidation of any kind.

I seriously doubt any of these conditions will be met. There's been no let-up at checkpoints that I can see, and no arrangement has even been proposed by Israel to allow freer movement for Dr. Barghouthi as he campaigns. A four-year-old child was shot and killed by an Israeli soldier while playing near her home in Rafah on Sunday, and Israeli soldiers killed a 38-year-old physician and a 17-year-old kid as they were walking near their homes in the Rafah refugee camp the day Dr. Barghouthi announced his candidacy for President.

And of course there was the infamous recent violin incident, where a 30-year-old Palestinian man was forced to play his violin at a checkpoint while soldiers mocked him so that he could pass and go to his music lesson.

Yoram Kaniuk, author of a book about a Jewish violinist forced to play for a concentration camp commander, had the gall to say that the soldiers responsible should be put on trial "not for abusing Arabs but for disgracing the Holocaust".

Plenty of high Israeli officials (like Dov Weisglass and Ehud Olmert) have said on the record that they are not interested in justice, peace, or democracy, but only in more land and fewer Palestinians (i.e. ethnic cleansing and continuing dispossession, in clear contravention of international law). So far they haven't been properly called to account by the international community for such illegal and inciteful comments and practices. Perhaps they are being given the benefit of the doubt.

But the whole world is watching now. If Israel fails this test of its intentions, there will be a lot of 'splainin to do.

Some fabulous, cogent, and sometimes funny articles about the upcoming elections and prospects for peace:

Dr. Mustafa is running as an independent, but his Al-Mubadara website has a lot of good info. Be sure to get in touch if you want to support the campaign.


Next: Mish Maqoul -- Unbelievable

(Dr. Mustafa gets beaten at a checkpoint
and other random insanities)

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