RAMALLAH, WEST BANK - President Bush says some great things about wanting democracy to spread to the peoples of the Middle East. But in the West Bank and Gaza, 3.5 million Palestinians are deeply skeptical of the sincerity of these declarations.
One of the main reasons for their skepticism - Yasser Arafat, the longtime leader of the Palestinian nationalist movement - sits in an upstairs room in the ruins of his compound here. In January 1996 elections sponsored and supported by the US government, he was elected rais (president) of the Palestinian Authority by a huge majority of Palestinian voters.
Five years later, the newly elected prime minister in neighboring Israel, Ariel Sharon, stated that he no longer wanted to deal with Mr. Arafat in the continuing peace diplomacy between their two nations. Since then, both Mr. Sharon and Mr. Bush have sought to sideline Arafat from any effective leadership role.
In recent years, many Palestinians have clamored to be able to hold new elections. Many - but no one can tell how many - are deeply critical of Arafat. All are eager to have a leadership responsive to their needs rather than to the dictates of outsiders. But in Palestine, as anywhere, holding credible elections requires the assurance of freedom of assembly, freedom of movement, and general security of the voting public.
In late 2002, I was part of a multinational group that explored just those issues for the Palestinians. But our work got nowhere. Israel, as occupying power, seemed quite unwilling to provide the conditions for credible elections in the occupied Palestinian territories.
Small wonder, then, if both Arafat and the vast majority of other Palestinians see Bush's call for democratization as meaningless for them.
Freedom of movement is essential not just to conduct elections, but also for normal life. Israel has severely curtailed this freedom for the Palestinians of the West Bank and Gaza since the outbreak of the current intifada in September 2000 - and even for some years before then, too. As I've traveled in and around this city, I've seen for myself how the tight "movement controls" that Israel has maintained on the Palestinians have stunted the Palestinians' ability to lead normal lives. People are often, unpredictably, prevented from going to other towns to attend business or medical appointments, school, or family gatherings. Sometimes, they're "locked down" in their own homes for days or weeks. No vehicles can carry goods from one city to another. Instead, each truckload has to be unpacked and carried to another truck at each city's limits.
I made two roundtrips here last month from Jerusalem, which is about 10 miles away. Ramallah is almost entirely enclosed within a high fence topped with razor wire. On one of my trips, I drove with an international worker: by making a broad detour to the north, we could enter Ramallah through a special "international" entrance that most Palestinians are forbidden to use.
For my other "crossings," I waited in the long line of Palestinians in the corralling system that brings them to the Israeli checkpoint at Kalandiya. No Palestinian vehicles can cross. People seeking to pass through must exit vehicles on one side, wait in the long line for the ID check, then walk across a rocky quarter-mile zone to taxis or friends waiting with vehicles on the other side. The walk across the zone is long, humiliating, and treacherous for anyone with mobility problems, young children, or lots of baggage.
On my last crossing, a rare snowstorm was battering the West Bank highlands. A harsh wind cut sideways through the open-sided corral. Many of the Palestinians in line were ill-clad; they shivered through the 15-minute wait. The young Israeli soldiers checking IDs had better clothing, but they looked almost equally miserable as they stood otherwise unprotected for their multihour shifts.
Most of the Palestinians crossing were residents of Jerusalem, coming to do business in Ramallah. Very few Ramallah residents ever get the special permits now needed to enter Jerusalem, where many of them have relatives, or used to work. They are, in effect, imprisoned inside their own town, and have been for some years now.
Nor is Ramallah special. Throughout the West Bank and Gaza, nearly all the Palestinians have been fenced into their home communities in this way. The big new separation wall that Israel is building in the West Bank is just the latest part of this vast movement-control system.
The Israeli government claims these movement controls are needed to prevent suicide bombers from reaching Israeli cities. But in addition, the Israeli chief of staff has told Israel's Hebrew-language press that the military's policies toward Palestinians have a clear purpose of political coercion.
Such an attempt to impose collective coercion on an entire people is illegal under the Geneva and Hague Conventions. It is also counterproductive. Israel's movement controls have been the single major cause for the collapse of the Palestinian economy and the rise in Palestinian militancy. Sharon has not brought to either Palestinians or Israelis the era of "peace and security" that he promised, nor does his newest "Disengagement Plan" look set to do so.
How much longer will Washington give him a free hand to continue these destructive, repressive, and highly anti-democratic policies?
• Helena Cobban, the author of five books on international issues, spent two weeks last month in the Middle East. Her first column from Ramallah appeared in the March 11 edition of the Monitor.