When on June 3 ‘president’ Yasser Arafat overruled a decision by the very court he had set up as an independent tribunal the previous month, he was not only caving in to American and Israeli pressure but also taking a leaf out of the book of fellow Arab dictators, such as Egypt’s Husni Mubarak.
The Palestinian High Court had ruled that Ahmad Saadat, leader of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), should be freed. Saadat was first arrested in January by the Palestinian Authority after Israel alleged that he had masterminded the assassination of an Israeli cabinet minister in October last year. Rehavam Ze’evi was shot dead in Jerusalem, apparently in revenge for the assassination in August 2001 of Abu Ali Mustafa, the late leader of the PFLP.
Arafat had a personal interest in Saadat’s imprisonment. The PFLP leader’s detention, and that of five others, was the centre-piece of a deal made on May 1 by the Americans and British that secured Tel Aviv’s agreement to end the month-long siege of Arafat’s West Bank headquarters. As part of the deal, Saadat was later transferred to a PA prison in Jericho, under joint US-British supervision, where he continues to be held despite the ruling by the three-man panel of the Palestinian High Court.
The High Court found that there was no evidence linking Saadat to Ze’evi’s murder, and that he had not been charged with any crime by the Palestinians. The Israelis declared that they would not be bound by their deal to end the siege of Arafat’s headquarters if the PA implemented the ruling in Saadat’s favour. Binyamin Ben-Eliziezer, Israel’s defence minister, immediately announced that Tel Aviv would take the “necessary steps” if Saadat were released.
Ariel Sharon, the Israeli prime minister, also weighed in: “We will take all the necessary steps so that it will not be possible to release a person who was involved in murder, and whose organisation carries out murders to this day,” he said. The Israeli army also sealed off Jericho, where Saadat is held. To add to the pressure, Israeli radio explained what was meant by “necessary steps”: Israeli officials were warning that they would assassinate Saadat if Arafat released him.
Arafat gave in almost immediately, declaring that, in view of Israel’s threats, Saadat would not be released; instead he would remain in the ‘protective custody’ of the PA. By doing this Arafat risked the wrath of his own people and demonstrated how worthless the ‘reforms’ of the PA really are. The Israelis and Americans, and their Arab allies, had demanded that the PA be replaced by a more ‘democratic’ organisation. Arafat, to placate them, had decreed the establishment of an independent judicial authority. In theory the court’s order is binding and does not need Arafat’s endorsement, but so far its orders have been ignored by the PA. As Palestinian human-rights activists have asked, what is the use of having binding court orders if they are not to be implemented?
Rafi Sourani, director of the Centre for Human Rights, made the point in a newspaper interview on June 4. “You can’t talk about democratic reforms and human rights, and then not implement court rulings,” he said. The Americans, who had made such a fuss about the need to reform the PA to make it more democratic, and to protect the human rights of Palestinians, were silent on the subject. Few can still believe that the US is exercised about Palestinians’ rights, but if anyone were that naive this silence should be a lesson. So should the reaction of Hamas: announcing that as long as the PA is “under the barrel of Israeli guns” it would be incapable of introducing reforms, Hamas urged Palestinians to choose armed resistance instead.
The first to take this advice should be Arafat himself, as he must be the first to know that giving in to Israeli threats never works. Certainly his refusal to release Saadat in compliance with the order of the court he himself established has not brought him any relief. In reprisal for the killing of 17 Israelis by Palestinian martyrs, Israeli troops stormed Arafat’s HQ on June 6, reducing three buildings to rubble and aiming a tank shell at his bedroom. He was not in the room when the shell tore a hole in a wall only 5 feet from his bed. This is not the first time he has narrowly missed death, but this time he has gone out of his way to obtain relief, no matter how temporary, yet has nothing whatsoever to show for his capitulation.
Arafat can, of course, claim to be following other Arab rulers’ example, in particular Husni Mubarak’s. Mubarak, who has ruled Egypt by emergency decree since 1981, when president Anwar Sadat was assassinated, has the power to quash court orders, and often exercises it. His latest intervention was to overturn the convictions of 21 allegedly ‘gay’ men, arrested in May 2001 and sentenced in November to prison for up to two years each for “habitual debauchery”; it took Egyptians by surprise because there was no domestic pressure for him to intervene. Many Egyptians understood his interference to have been prompted by external pressure. That is the likeliest explanation. US Congressmen brought pressure to bear, and French president Jacques Chirac, who visited Cairo recently, called on Mubarak to intervene in the case. Not one of the Western politicians and organisations that was so concerned about the 21 men has intervened to help Saadat.