Al-Burg, West Bank — From her hilltop village of Al-Burj, located southwest of Hebron, Majida Talahmeh closely followed Israeli and Palestinian negotiators last month as they put the finishing touches on the Wye River Memorandum in the United States.
Like many Palestinians, Talahmeh, 27, worried about how a new agreement on security cooperation would affect the Palestinian people. Her family feels that it has already paid a heavy price for Israeli security demands.
More than two years ago, Israel ordered the Palestinians to arrest Talahmeh’s husband, Saleh, a 32-year-old computer engineer. They gave no reason, but the Palestinians swiftly obliged.
Saleh Talahmeh was never allowed to see a lawyer. He was never put on trial. He remains in prison today — ironically, in a Jericho facility once run by the Israeli army.
In Washington, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu often complained that Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasir Arafat had failed to maintain security cooperation with Israel. But in the view of the Talahmeh family the PA has been too cooperative.
“Israel didn’t allow Arafat to enter Palestine until he promised to satisfy all their demands,” says Majida Talahmeh, echoing a popular Palestinian gripe about the peace process.
Dressed in a traditional white head scarf, Talahmeh, who is a mother of four, admits her husband is a sympathizer of Hamas, the Islamist movement whose military wing has killed scores of Israelis in recent years in an effort to destroy the peace process.
But she claims he was never involved in attacks on Israelis, and she cannot understand how his imprisonment improves Israeli security.
A provision of the Wye agreement calling on Israel to release 750 imprisoned Palestinians offers her little hope.
“Arafat might then agree to arrest those who were released,” she says cynically.
Human rights groups echo the Talahmeh family’s sentiments. They fear that the security provisions of the Wye accords, drafted to ease Israeli concerns, will only lead to more human rights violations by the Palestinian Authority, which already has a poor record.
At the same time, they say, Israel appears oblivious to the security dangers of fostering a Palestinian police state on its doorstep.
Some experts even predict tougher action by the PA could backfire by fueling frustration with Arafat and boosting support for Hamas, the very group Israel hopes to see undermined by the new accord.
In the past week, the PA police have jailed some 300 Hamas members without charging them. And last week, PA police put Hamas’ spiritual leader, Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, under house arrest and blocked journalists’ access by cutting his phone lines.
The actions followed a barely foiled suicide attack on a school bus in Gaza last week. In a leaflet immediately following the attack, Hamas called the bombing “heroic” but fell short of claiming responsibility. This contradicted a call made right after the attack to Israeli radio claiming responsibility for Hamas. One soldier died when a military jeep guarding the children interposed itself between the suicide bomber’s car and the school bus.
Even before this crackdown, Palestinian police launched a series of measures right after the Wye agreement was signed two weeks ago, including detaining journalists attempting to interview Yassin on his opposition to Wye. Palestinian police also raided an office of Fatah, Arafat’s own political movement, in a search for documents and illegal weapons. The raid sparked a clash between Palestinian security forces and Fatah activists in which one Palestinian teenager died after being shot twice in the head.
Many Palestinians see the new crackdown as a continuation of Arafat’s thuggish policies since his arrival in the Palestinian areas in 1994, and Israel’s policies before that.
In areas it controls, the nascent Palestinian regime has used many controversial methods reminiscent of Israel’s occupation — including torture and administrative detention — to quell opposition to Arafat and the peace process, and to satisfy Israel.
According to Bassem Eid, executive director of the Palestinian Human Rights Monitoring Group, some 150 Palestinians have been locked up without trial like Saleh Talahmeh.
Another 500 are imprisoned without trial either for allegedly collaborating with Israel or for criminal offenses. Dozens more alleged terrorists have been convicted through the state security courts, which snatch suspects from their homes for midnight trials.
These moves allow the Palestinian Authority to show Israel that it is cracking down on terrorism while avoiding Israeli demands for extradition.
“The Americans and Israelis are supporting Arafat’s dictatorial tendencies,” charged Eid. “It is already extremely difficult to build institutions of democracy or civil society under current Israeli demands.”
Some U.S. officials say CIA involvement in Palestinian security could lead to an improvement, since the CIA may try to train Palestinian security forces in less controversial methods.
But last week, Human Rights Watch, the international human rights group, warned that the Wye agreement — which calls for CIA officials to monitor Palestinian compliance on security issues — could deal a further blow to Palestinian democracy.
Joe Stork, director of advocacy for Human Rights Watch, cited the Wye memorandum’s human rights clause, which states the Palestinians will implement their counter-terrorism obligations “with due regard for internationally accepted norms of human rights” but “without derogating” from the measures outlined in the accord.
“Most treaties of this sort state that measures in them will be implemented as long as they don’t deviate from human rights standards,” said Stork. “This turns it around. It’s basically saying, we respect human rights unless it gets in the way of all these other obligations.”
Referring to the new U.S. oversight and liaison role between the PA and Israel security forces, and the troubling human rights record both have established in the territories, Stork said, “I think the U.S. is setting itself up in a way where it will become accountable for this kind of behavior.”
But Aaron Miller, chief deputy to State Department Mideast envoy Dennis Ross, said, “We’ve made it very clear at the highest level of the Palestinian Authority … that durable, credible institutions must be based on the rule of law and respect for individual and human rights.”
As for the Israelis, polls show they have built “a cognitive partition that runs pretty much along the Green Line,” according to Tamar Hermann, a Tel Aviv university political scientist who tracks public opinion on the peace process.
Jessica Montell, development director at B’Tselem, the Israeli human rights group, recalled the late Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, who once said that the Palestinians could crack down on terror better than Israel since they have no B’Tselem or supreme court.
“The message that is constantly communicated to the Palestinians,” she said, “is ‘Stop terrorism — and we don’t care how you do it.’ ”
Avi Machlis is a reporter for the Jewish Telegraphic Agency. Lawrence Cohler-Esses is a staff writer.