October 10, 1996

Activist assails Arafat's rule

Palestinian human rights monitor Bassem Eid

by Sylvain Comeau

Two years ago, when peace talks first produced Palestinian self-rule and the creation of the Palestinian Authority, friends asked Palestinian human rights monitor Bassem Eid what he planned to do.

"I told them I would continue my work as a human rights activist. They were surprised, and started laughing. Most Palestinians thought that liberation meant that they were going to regain their rights--but today the situation is worse for us than it was under the Israelis."

Eid spoke at the Moot Court last Wednesday after receiving the McGill/Interamicus Robert S. Litvack Human Rights Memorial Award. Eid has spent close to a decade monitoring and documenting human rights violations in Israeli-occupied territories for the Israeli human rights organization B'T selem.

At the onset of Palestinian self- rule, he began to focus his attention on the Palestinian Authority and unfortunately, he says, bad news came almost immediately.

"The Authority was formed in May 1994. On the fifth of July, I learned about the third Palestinian to die under torture in prison. In the past two years, eight have died the same way. Yet the Authority claims that the deaths were the result of 'individual action.' What is that supposed to mean?"

Eid's documentation of the deaths resulted in an attack on his credibility. "I wrote a report on those prisoners; Arafat's response was to claim that I am acting with 'Israeli authority.'"

The implication was that the Israeli government was manipulating Eid. Even though B'Tselem has frequently criticized Israeli abuses, Eid's response was to leave the organization. In an interview last Friday, he said that he hopes to form a new human rights organization, the Palestinian Human Rights Monitoring Group.

"I will have more influence and more credibility with my own people as a Palestinian criticizing from inside the society on behalf of a Palestinian rather than an Israeli human rights organization."

Eid, who lives in the East Jerusalem Palestinian refugee camp Shuafat, needs every possible asset on his side. His position in the region is precarious at best--last January, he was arrested by the Palestinian Authority and held for 25 hours. He credits the international media for his release.

"There's no doubt that I was released because of pressure from the international media. The day after my arrest, my face was on the cover of 14 newspapers in the U.S. That gave me a lot of courage, and strength, because I knew the international community was behind me."

While in custody, Eid was advised to "cut your tongue," meaning that he must censor himself. "I promised them that my tongue would only grow longer and longer."

Eid is uncomfortably aware that his international profile may be the only defense for his freedom of speech. He accepted the Litvack award not only as an honour but as a "protection" against retaliation. He spent last Thursday cultivating valuable contacts in Ottawa, with ministers, local NGOs (non-governmental organizations) and human rights foundations.

"It's very important for someone in my position to have these kinds of meetings. If something happens to me, they are likely to get involved, because they have met me, and I believe that they trust that I am telling them the truth."

Such contacts may increase his chances, but Eid is pessimistic about the prospects for his long-term safety. "I know that my life is in danger. I don't know how long I can continue my work, but I am sure that, sooner or later, Arafat will put an end to this kind of activity."

Eid's courage comes from strength of conviction. Working in one of the most highly politicized areas in the world, he is concerned far more with principles than politics, and he worries that the Authority is more concerned with power than human rights.

"I believe that dignity is more important than independence. I believe that the Palestinian Authority is our future, but they must respect human rights unconditionally. One reason for resistance to the peace process is that the Authority doesn't respect the people's rights."

Eid returned to his dangerous mission last Saturday, although he has few illusions about the plight of those he seeks to help.

"Even when I am there, the people being tortured in prison are alone. But I can shout from the outside, and tell people what is happening, so that the international community can get involved. There is no doubt that such pressure must mean less and less abuses."