By Sam Bahour and Prof. Todd May *
During the 1970's, the apartheid government of South Africa
sought to bolster its claims to legitimacy by allowing elections in the
Bantustans - the equivalent to today's walled in Palestinian communities
in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. The thought was that if people elected
local officials, even to hold largely ceremonial
offices, then the rest of the world would stop whining about how
undemocratic and illegal apartheid was.
There were two problems with this strategy. First, the world understood
that ceremonial elections do not make a democracy. Second, the major
candidate in any election that would be endorsed by black South
Africans-Nelson Mandela-was being held in a South African prison. Instead,
black South Africans were being offered collaborator candidates that were
chosen by the white South African government.
Through its policy of "constructive engagement," however, the Reagan
administration tacitly endorsed this strategy, even when Congress resisted
by passing the Anti-Apartheid Act in 1986.
How little has changed. Except for the lack of Congressional resistance,
the situation in the Israeli-occupied territories mirrors that of
apartheid South Africa. Palestinians are being forced, either by choice or
fate, to agree to "acceptable" candidates for elections to offices that
will have only as much power as the Israeli
government, underwritten by the Bush administration, grants.
Consider the ceremonial character of the offices for which any Palestinian
would be running. The Palestinian infrastructure has been decimated by
thirty-seven years of military occupation and, more recently, the Israeli
invasion of 2002 and subsequent military incursions. Palestinians do not
control the resources that lie on their
land. Their streets are patrolled by a foreign army and their movements
limited by humiliating checkpoints.
There are not even recognized borders for this land over which the
legislators will have no legislative control. In short, for those who
would receive the honor of being elected to a Palestinian democratic
will be nothing to legislate, nothing to be legislated over, and no
resources with which to legislate. This is the democracy Palestinians are
And there is more. Not only was the last elected president of the
Palestinian people forced to languish until his death under permanent
house arrest, two current Palestinian Legislative Council members, who
were supposed to be immune from Israeli interference, currently reside in
Israeli jails for their political leadership. Along with these two
political prisoners, over 7,000 Palestinian prisoners remain detained by
Israel, many of them leaders of their communities.
Say what one will, both apartheid South Africa and Israel have recognized
leaders when they have seen them.
Eventually, South Africa stopped the bloodshed on its land by reversing
the historic injustice caused to blacks in South Africa. Israel, on the
other hand, seems not only blind to the future Palestinian leaders, but
has refused even to acknowledge the growing number of its own citizens who
are choosing to be jailed instead of serving the Israeli occupation.
Calls for democratization among the Palestinians serve the wider purposes
of the Sharon and Bush administrations. Such calls hint that the problem
lies not in the occupation of Palestinian land but in
the political character of the Palestinian people. If we are not ready for
democracy, as defined by our occupier and its funder, then perhaps, they
reason, the occupation can justifiably continue.
However, the Palestinian people, and much of the world besides, understand
the difference between an empty democracy and the real thing. If
Palestinians have been so slow to ratify the institutional trappings that
have recently been offered to them, if they seem to balk at the
'generosity' shown by the Israelis and the Americans, perhaps the fault
does not lie solely with the Palestinians themselves. Perhaps it is
because what Palestinians seek is true independence on their own land over
which they have effective control. In other words, a democracy.
* Sam Bahour (SBAHOUR@palnet.com) is a
Palestinian-American living in Ramallah and Todd May (TKDRJMAY@aol.com) is
a Professor of Philosophy at Clemson University (Institution given for
identification purposes only).
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