The mistreatment of Palestinians by Palestinians has seldom been given more than cursory examination by journalists outside the Middle East, and for obvious reasons. Israel's supporters are more inclined to worry about the random murdering and maiming of Jews, an attempt to shatter the nerves of Israelis and destroy their state. Those who sympathize with Palestinians don't want to remind anyone of how badly they treat each other. Palestinians have somehow become the favourite oppressed people of intellectuals and journalists in Europe and elsewhere. It's unfashionable to say a word against them.
Last week, in an article mostly ignored abroad, Bassam Eid, a brave man who runs the Palestinian Human Rights Monitoring Group, described the violence that now rages uncontrolled among his people. His article, "The Reign Of the Thugs," in an Israeli daily, Haaretz, said the Palestinian Authority can't begin to curb the violence. Palestinians murder other Palestinians in cold blood and no one gets charged. Gunmen, some political and some apparently not, spread fear among the population. But, Eid asks, "What Palestinian interior minister would be daring enough to punish those responsible? Would the Palestinian interior minister be killed if he imposed a penalty upon them?"
Eid reported that in the town of Tul Karm, local security is now managed by the Al-Aqsa Brigades when they are not running terrorist operations against Israel. In October they shot down, in the street, two men accused of collaborating with Israel. Criminals, in other words, now function as police and sometimes executioners. This makes it less surprising that it was a Palestinian "policeman" who killed 11 (including a psychologist originally from Toronto) in a Jerusalem bus on Thursday. Last summer Eid reported there had been at least 73 vigilante killings of accused collaborators since the start of the current intifada in 2000. He says that the town of Nablus is currently ruled by two armed, illiterate thugs.
A former journalist for both Israeli and Palestinian newspapers, Eid now spends all his time campaigning for human rights. He started with an Israeli organization but founded his own group after he realized that he had little credibility among Palestinians while connected to Israelis.
He's no great friend of Zionism, he dislikes Ariel Sharon's policies and he wants to see Gaza and the West Bank under Palestinian control. Three years ago he lost some supporters in Israel by claiming that rock-throwing constitutes "non-violent resistance," though rocks have killed more than 10 Israelis.
But his human rights campaigns put him in even more severe conflict with the Palestinian leaders, whom he considers incompetent as well as corrupt. A vehement opponent of suicide bombing, he thinks it scandalous that Yasser Arafat encourages Palestinians, including children, to kill themselves and others. Last year he wrote, "It appears the nearly 2,500 Palestinians and more than 700 Israelis killed during this intifada are not enough to fulfill Arafat's political interests."
In 1995 he brought out a report on the PA's human rights violations, including torture, quoting the testimony of 72 victims. In 1999, in a study of academic freedom at Palestinian universities, he found a network of undercover agents collecting the names of those who criticize the PA. He said students and faculty did not feel free to speak in class. "There are a number of cases, particularly in Gaza, of violations of academic freedom. The consensus is that these professors are used as examples for others." Students know that classmates are paid to monitor them. Many students have been arrested and then later repeatedly visited by PA security forces.
Last June I had dinner with Bassam Eid in the courtyard of the American Colony Hotel in East Jerusalem, an idyllic oasis where nothing even hints at the passions that rage a few hundred metres away. Eid turned out to be a heavy smoker, nervous and fast-talking, anxious to tell his own story and frame it in precisely his own way. He believes human rights develop from the bottom up; they are seldom bestowed by those in authority. "You have to take human rights. No one will give them to you." He expressed contempt for the European Union, which gives vast sums of money to Palestinian leaders without any honest accounting.
Despite his resentment of the Israelis, he has no illusions about the virtues of the Palestinians. He wondered aloud who was more to blame for Arafat's crimes: Arafat, or the populace that tolerates and even reveres him? He said Palestinians fall into three categories. Those who support the Arafat gang out of self-interest, those who are apathetic, and the rest, who are afraid to speak.
Once he hoped that Palestinians could build a bridge of democracy to the Arab world. "But when the Palestinian Authority arrived, everybody just forgot about democracy." He believes all Palestinians have two faces, one they show each other, one they show the outside world. He tries to reveal the face that's usually hidden. Over dinner someone asked him, "Isn't there anything good you can say about your people?" His reply was chilling. "At the moment, no."
And now he acknowledges that the Palestinians need the most basic kind of help from outside. In his Haaretz article he argued that they should ask Jordan, Egypt and perhaps Turkey to send in security forces to restore order in the territories. The Palestinians simply can't manage it on their own.