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Palestinian rep. talks reform Palestinian Authority official discusses democracy at UC Berkeley

By David Scharfenberg Daily Planet staff
Thursday May 16, 2002

The chief U.S. representative for the Palestine Liberation Organization said the Palestinian Authority will pursue democratic reform at a UC Berkeley appearance Wednesday afternoon. 

“We want democracy,” said Hasan Rahman. “We need accountability.” 

Rahman’s comments came a day after PLO Chairman and Palestinian Authority leader Yasser Arafat pledged reform during a speech in Ramallah. Critics have argued that Arafat is dictatorial and say they doubt his latest promises. 

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has warned that he will not engage in peace talks with the Palestinians until the Palestinian Authority changes. 

But Rahman said the Authority is pursuing reform on its own initiative. He also warned that Israel should not use the issue to stall negotiations on Palestinian statehood, the fate of refugees and other pressing concerns. 

“The reform shouldn’t be used as a pretext by Israel not to deal with the issues,” he said. “Whether we have Arafat or do not have Arafat, these issues will not disappear.” 

Rahman also praised the Bush administration for recognizing, in recent months, the need for third-party intervention. But he argued that, while U.S. involvement is essential, it is not impartial. 

“The United States is not an honest broker,” Rahman said, citing U.S. support for Israel in its refusal to allow an investigation of military action in Jenin. “It is an indispensable broker.” 

Randy Barnes, a UC Berkeley student and member of the Israel Action Committee, asked Rahman if he would favor compensation over repatriation for Palestinian refugees. 

Rahman said there are some situations, such as the reunification of families, that demand repatriation. But he said the PLO would not push for a solution that would substantially change the “demography” of Israel. 

Will Youmans, a leader of campus group Students for Justice in Palestine, took a different position. 

“We believe in the right of return,” he said, arguing that refugees has a right to go back to their former homes. 

Youmans said Arafat’s government, the Palestinian Authority, takes a more moderate position because it is too wrapped up in the political process. 

“Their legitimacy is based on the fact that they’re negotiating with Israel,” he said. 

Chris Silver, an Israel Action Committee member who attended Rahman’s speech, said he was impressed with the representative’s approach. 

“He seemed much more interested in peace than groups like SJP,” Silver said, arguing that Students for Justice in Palestine is intent on the “destruction of Israel.” 

“It’s a gross distortion of everything we stand for,” Youmans replied. “What we advocate is the complete equality of Palestinians under the law.” 

Equality, he said, would transform Israel from an “ethnocracy” to a democracy. 

Rahman also called on American Jews to speak out against Sharon’s tactics, accusing the Israeli Prime Minister of war crimes. 

“I think he’s doing his best given the circumstances,” said Silver, discussing Sharon. “It would be a lot easier for American Jewry if Palestinian- and Arab-Americans stood up against suicide bombings.”