Rashid Abu Shabak has just been named by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas as the head of P.A. Preventive Security for the West Bank and Gaza. Much is being made in Israel of the fact that he is known as a "collaborator hunter." Indeed this is so. During a press conference on August 22, 2002, Shabak – who at that time was serving as head of Gaza Preventative Security – put on display one Akram Muhammad al-Zatma, a Palestinian student suspected of informing Israel of the whereabouts of Hamas leader Selah Shehadeh. Zatma had been arrested a month earlier and held in detention until the press conference, when he was turned over to Hamas gunmen and summarily executed.
Shabak’s involvement in persecuting “collaborators,” however, is merely one aspect of a much larger story. If his appointment keeps the issue in the public eye, this is to the good.
On February 17, news broke in Israel that Abbas himself had ratified the execution of three “collaborators” who had been charged with treason. According to the reports, the information came from one Sakher Bseiss, governor of the Northern Gaza Strip – who, it would seem, was providing a service to the P.A. by going public with this.
The full story, as provided by Bseiss, was that there were 51 people on death row who had been convicted of various crimes and sentenced to death within Palestinian Authority courts during Arafat’s regime. Abbas, in accordance with Islamic law, which requires that all death sentences be approved by a religious authority, turned the cases over to Sheikh Akrima Sabri, the mufti of Jerusalem, who approved the sentences as religiously valid. Abbas then put his signature on some or all of the death warrants.
Why it was said that there were three “collaborators” to be executed is not clear. Perhaps these three were simply those being scheduled to go first. For by the second week of March the news carried stories of 15 “collaborators” due to be executed before the month was out.
According to Avi Leitner of the Israel Law Center, Shurat HaDin, there have not been 15 “collaborators” who have been tried and sentenced to death; the Center, which monitors these matters, is aware only of some seven or eight. Many more are inside the prisons, but have not been put on trial. In any event, the trials that have proceeded have been precipitous and have conformed only dubiously to any coherent system of law: from place to place within the P.A., the rules vary.
Those who were convicted and sentenced had been sitting for some time on death row. They might have sat there indefinitely. The reason why Abbas decided at this particular juncture to move on the executions is of more than passing interest, and has precious little to do with genuine due process.
“Collaborators” are Palestinians who have cooperated with Israeli authorities to locate wanted arch-terrorists, who then are usually executed. That this cooperation constitutes treason within the P.A. courts is a matter of considerable significance. The Palestinian Authority itself is supposed to be locating and imprisoning and presumably trying terrorists with blood on their hands. In fact, as the death penalty is a common sentence for murders within the P.A., it would not be outrageous to suggest that such terrorists, if tried, might have received such sentences in due course.
Yet so great is the influence of terrorist groups such as Hamas within the Palestinian society that their extreme displeasure with the “collaborators” has to be taken very seriously. Abbas himself has made it clear that the members of Hamas and Islamic Jihad are brothers who will be incorporated into the society, and not outsiders to it.
The terrorist groups, however, were creating a problem for Abbas, who has been working mightily to generate the impression that he is heading a nation-in-the-making that conforms to democratic principles and functions with law and order. In point of fact, the Palestinian Authority is on the verge of anarchy and control of renegade forces is close to nil. Particularly embarrassing for Abbas are extra-judicial executions, in which members of Hamas and others drag individuals accused of collaboration out of their homes and summarily shoot them or hang them.
This is not a situation that could be tolerated. But Abbas had neither the desire nor the ability to come after those who carry out such executions. His solution was to co-opt the situation and demonstrate to those inclined take part in extra-judicial executions that the system viewed the matter of “collaborators” seriously and would be dealing with them within the bounds of the legal processes of the P.A. “Don’t worry, guys,” he was telling them: “we’ll handle this.”
This may have moved Abbas one very small step towards creating greater order within the society, but it most certainly has not moved him closer to principles of democracy. There is first, the significant matter of his seeking the approval of a Muslim religious authority, even after the P.A. courts had handed down their rulings. With this Abbas has tipped his hand: The Palestinian state will be ruled by Islamic law.
Then too there is the critical fact that the human rights of those “collaborators” scheduled for execution have been abrogated.
U.S. policy with regard to issues of human rights in the international arena has been vastly complex. Where, it is appropriate to ask, does the United States stand in this instance?
Recent U.S. history is replete with instances in which Realpolitik prevailed and human rights issues went out the window. When it has suited the national interest, totalitarian regimes have been uncritically supported.
And yet, we wouldn’t be totally wrong to have favorable expectations with regard to U.S. support of human rights. Thirty years ago Congress passed the Jackson-Vanick Amendment, which denied most favored nation trade status to nations that did not grant its citizens the right to emigrate. That was a stunning success. The U.S. rose to the occasion when called to do so, and Jews trapped in the Soviet Union were able to find their way out.
Now is perhaps a time when the U.S. is again called upon to rise to the occasion.
From Jerusalem, where I work, I decided to clarify the United States position on this matter. On March 8th I called the U.S. Embassy Spokesman Paul Patin in Tel Aviv. When I put the question to him about the U.S. position, he alluded to extra-judicial executions and made it clear that the U.S. was opposed to them. I in turn then clarified that I was not speaking of anything extra-judicial, but something that had gone through legal process in the P.A.
“Was the U.S. going to do anything about this?” I asked.
“Well,” he intoned, “we’re not going to send in the army.”
I was not certain if he was being flippant or if this was a poor and inappropriate attempt at humor, but I decided to play it straight.
“I know you’re not sending in the army,” I replied.
“There is no official position on this,” Patin said.
“Ah,” I answered, “but maybe unofficially the U.S. might do something – like, you know, tell Abu Mazen that if he wants full support from the U.S. this cannot be permitted.”
At this, Patin stonewalled: It was not in his jurisdiction, he explained. The Embassy deals only with relations with Israel. It is the Consulate in Jerusalem, which takes its orders not from the Embassy but directly from the State Department, that deals with U.S. relations with the P.A.
“Call Chuck Hunter,” he advised. I did, and found Mr. Hunter, the Consulate Spokesman, to be totally without flippancy or humor as he spoke with me.
“This is an important question,” he said. He wanted to check locally and with
Washington in order to get more information, and would then get back to me. Late in the day, March 9th, he did call me.
“I’ve checked with my people locally,” he told me, “and there haven’t been any executions.”
“But,” I protested, “Abu Mazen has signed off on the executions and the people are sitting on death row.”
“You know how it is with death row,” he demurred. “They can sit there forever.”
“Then the U.S. doesn’t intend to do anything about this situation?” I asked.
“No,” he answered, in closing.
Was Mr. Hunter giving me something with his comment about sitting on death row indefinitely? Was this indeed an instance of very low key, informal, back-door protection of rights? There is no way for me to be certain. But if he was, it is insufficient.
President Bush has been adamant about the need to cultivate democracy in the Muslim states in the Middle East. He has indicated repeatedly that peace between the Palestinians and Israel will not be possible until the Palestinians achieve a democratic state. This has been a cornerstone of his policy. Is he now going to sell that policy short and cut Mahmoud Abbas far more slack than he should?
A true democracy is about more than elections and a legislative body. It is concerned with the value of human life, and protection of civil liberties and genuine due process of law. Mr. Bush knows how to speak out forcefully with regard to what he expects, in accordance with his vision of what is required for peace. He even says Israel has some responsibility to ensuring Palestinian economic viability. Is he going to accept a mere semblance of democracy within Palestinian society – an empty shell without the soul of democracy – without an effort to help develop more?
The ostensibly moderate leader of the Palestinians is moving, without genuine due process of law, to execute individuals whose crime was to aid and abet the capture of murderers and to likely prevent the loss of additional human life at the hands of these same murderers. In the face of this, can the American government afford to remain silent?
Arlene Kushner lives and writes in Jerusalem. She had done four major reports on UNRWA for the Center for Near East Policy Research. Her new book, Disclosed: Inside the Palestinian Authority and the PLO.