LETTERS FROM PALESTINE
My Boss will run for President of Palestine
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
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
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
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,
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
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
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
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)