Palestinian MPs Held in Israli Jails

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It is strange that Israel can still get away with calling itself ‘the only democracy in the Middle East’ when it does everything it can to destroy Palestinian democracy, bombing the parliament building in Gaza, refusing to allow elections in Jerusalem and putting MPs in jail.

Locking up MPs is what dictators do to make sure that democracy cannot work. So where does that leave Israel given that it currently holds 27 elected members of the Palestinian parliament – the Palestine Legislative Assembly – in prison?

Most of them are held without charge and many of them were originally jailed as a reprisal for the capture of Corporal Gilad Shalit, so it would be difficult for the Israelis to deny that they were put in jail precisely BECAUSE they were MPs.

The heroic hunger strike by more than 2,000 prisoners won a number of concessions from the Israelis, including a promise to extend administrative detention at the end of six months ONLY if there is fresh evidence.

One can only hope the Israelis will not try to justify the continued detention of MPs who are held under administrative detention when their current six-month terms expire.

This will apply to most of the MPs, including the Speaker of the Palestinian parliament, Dr Aziz Dweik, a university professor who has never been associated with the military wing of Hamas or any other Palestinian party, and Ahmad Al-Haj who, at 72, is the oldest parliamentarian and was one of the oldest hunger strikers.

It should also apply to organisers of village protests against land-theft, such as Bassem Tamimi at Nabi Saleh, who has been held for over a year in administrative detention for organising his village’s campaign of popular unarmed struggle.

But will it? Can someone please explain to the Israeli government why it is wrong to lock up MPs and popular representatives?

First, it is undemocratic. The Israelis did it to stop the Palestinian parliament from functioning and they succeeded. There has never been a time when all the elected MPs were at liberty and able to meet as a parliament.

Secondly, it is illegal, not just under the Palestinian constitution, which gives immunity to parliamentarians, but also under international law because it is a form of collective punishment.

Thirdly, it is counterproductive, because it has made Palestinians all the more determined to support their elected representatives.

That doesn’t just apply to MPs held under administrative detention. It applies to all MPs held as what the Israelis call “security prisoners” and the Palestinians call “soldiers in the battle to end the occupation”.

The best known is Marwan Barghouthi, the former general secretary of Fatah who was re-elected as an MP while in prison and who many believe would be elected president if he were released.

Even many Israeli politicians have said he should have been released as one of the 1,027 handed over in the Gilad Shalit prisoner exchange. It is a tragedy that he has been left to rot in jail for the last ten years.

Then there is Ahmad Saadat, the leader of the PFLP, who was held in solitary confinement for many years without visits or even letters from his family.

Then there is Jamal Tirawi who is the spokesman for the Fatah parliamentary party in the Palestinian parliament reporting directly to the President, Mahmoud Abbas.

He was arrested from the middle of Ramallah by Israeli troops even though Ramallah is supposed to be entirely under Palestinian control – as was Marwan Barghouti –so it would be more accurate to say they were abducted. The Israelis had no right to be there.

More recently there was the Jerusalem MP Mohammed Totah and the former Jerusalem minister Khaled Abu Arafeh who are held in prison awaiting deportation for the ‘crime’ of representing East Jerusalem, which the Israelis have illegally annexed.

If the Israelis were serious about wanting negotiations, they would release all the MPs from their prisons. After all, they need someone to negotiate with and many of the most respected politicians are in prison.

The British released Gandhi and Nehru from jail in 1944. Two years later the British were negotiating with them and two years later Nehru was prime minister.

The same happened with Jomo Kenyatta. He was released from prison in 1961. The following year he was negotiating with the British and the next year he was prime minister of an independent Kenya.

The same happened in South Africa when Nelson Mandela was freed after serving 27 years in jail. Within four years he moved from prisoner to president.

The next president of the Palestinian Authority and the first president of an independent Palestine could well be someone who is in jail now and the Israeli do themselves no favours by keeping them there.

Sooner or later they are going to have to release all of their Palestinian prisoners as part of a negotiated peace settlement and if they are serious they will make a start on releasing the MPs and elected leaders now.

( / 30.05.2012)

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