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Date posted: October 29, 2003
By Ben Saul

The Sydney Peace Prize is Australia s pre-eminent way of acknowledging the extraordinary people who risk their lives for the cause of peace. Past recipients have been towering symbols of justice: Mary Robinson, Desmond Tutu, Xanana Gusmao, William Deane and Muhammad Yunus. Their achievements speak for themselves.

In stark contrast, the award of this years Sydney Peace Prize to Dr Hanan Ashrawi, a well known Palestinian human rights activist, politician and academic, has been dogged by spectacular controversy. The typically laconic pace of Sydney politics has been shaken by claims that Ashrawi supports Palestinian violence and opposes Israel s right to exist.

In response, the city council has withdrawn its support for the prize in protest against Ashrawi. The lord mayor has been accused of bowing to Jewish pressure to reject Ashrawi, in order to help her husband get elected to federal politics in an electorate with a large Jewish population. The local university has refused to allow the award to be presented in its ceremonial hall. It seems the full fury of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been dumped on the beaches of the relaxed harbour city. Ashrawi herself arrives in Sydney in early November to collect her prize, surrounded by this turmoil.

The Sydney Peace Prize is judged on three criteria: a significant contribution to global peace, an ability to further the cause of peace with justice, and a commitment to non-violence. Putting aside the provincial politicking, on all of these measures, Dr Hanan Ashrawi is a deserving and well considered choice.

In the context of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, it is simply impossible to achieve universal agreement on the right choice. The history of that conflict is one of deep bitterness, which has soured this years award and obscured the real achievements of Dr Ashrawi. To her credit, Dr Ashrawi has refused to comment on the parochial politics and considerable vitriol behind much of the dispute.

Unlike most commentators, Hanan Ashrawi has lived her life under Israeli military occupation. At different times she has been arrested and detained, barred from her homeland, subjected to arbitrary and humiliating strip-searches at military checkpoints, held the head of a dying student, rushed wounded students to hospital, been fired on with teargas, and borne the brunt of intense international scrutiny and criticism, including hurtful assertions that she is not really committed to peace.

Despite all of this, Ashrawi has remained committed to a peaceful and non-violent solution. Since her early student involvement in human rights and legal aid, she has had a distinguished role in grassroots politics, including during the intifadah, as well as by representing Palestinians in government and at peace talks. She founded leading civil society groups devoted to citizens rights, dialogue and democracy.

She has also been a strong supporter of the rule of law, through strengthening judicial institutions, training and disciplining police and security forces, ensuring due process, and guaranteeing the accountability of those in power. She resigned from the Palestinian government in 1998 because of concerns about corruption, and she fell out with Arafat over her call for the democratic reform of Palestinian institutions. She plainly does not put politics before principle, even if it damages her own career.

Internationally, she has worked with the Independent International Commission on Kosovo, the Council on Foreign Relations, the World Bank and the United Nations. It is a wonder that someone so principled and distinguished has become so embroiled in a messy local controversy, which unfairly challenges her reputation.

Yet Ashrawi is an easy person to defend, precisely because her record is so impressive. Two main accusations must be answered first, that she has encouraged violence and second, that she rejects a two-state solution and Israel s right to exist.

On the first charge, Ashrawis record shows that she has been firmly committed to non-violence. As she plainly wrote in 2002: Violence against civilians is morally reprehensible and repugnant regardless of the identity of the perpetrator.

While she has often discussed why Palestinians have resorted to violence, there is a crucial moral difference between explaining the causes of violence and actively supporting it. Identifying the causes does not justify violence, but hopes to understand the grievances and desperation felt by Palestinians under occupation. Many of the views falsely attributed to Ashrawi rest on a failure to understand this distinction.

Ashrawi has rightly stated that much of the violence, while deplorable, is a response to illegal Israeli occupation, territorial expansion through settlements, the building of a physical wall of segregation, the policy of assassination, the demolition of houses and confiscation or destruction of land, political detentions and human rights abuses including torture in detention.

It was past winner of the Peace Prize, Desmond Tutu, who in 1989 compared the Israeli occupation to apartheid in South Africa . As Ashrawi said in 2000, Israel cannot create a powder keg situation and then complain once the powder keg explodes.

At the same time, Ashrawi has condemned terrorism. On Australian television in September 2003, she strongly criticised the violence of Hamas and Jihad and demanded that they commit to democracy and the rule of law. As she said: Nobody gave Hamas or Jihad the mandate to carry out these [terrorist] actions in the name of the Palestinians. In her view, Hamas and Jihad are not controlled by the PLO, but oppose it, precisely because, unlike the PLO, those groups do not accept Israel s right to exist.

Ashrawi has also observed that it was unrealistic to expect the Palestinian Authority to crack down on terrorist groups at a time when Israel was methodically destroying the institutions and capabilities of the Authority. She said that to require the under-resourced Palestinian Authority to stop the same violence that the Israeli army could not stop is to set the authority up for a fall. Pre-conditioning peace on the Authority eliminating violence was always unrealistic.

Ashrawi correctly denied that Palestinians celebrated the September 11 terrorist attacks. It is true that limited television footage showed some groups of Palestinians celebrating. But that hardly proves that most Palestinians reacted that way, just as footage of soccer hooligans does not prove that most soccer fans are violent. Indeed it is a bluntly orientalist view of Palestinians to believe that brief and sensational news clips reflect the experience of wider Palestinian society.

Yet it also is important to distinguish armed conflict from terrorism. Terrorism has no meaning in international law, whereas military action in self-defence by a people (or self-determination group) against an illegal occupier is well recognized in law. When Xanana Gusmao received the Peace Prize in 2000, nobody argued that he was a poor choice because he supported the East Timorese military campaign against Indonesia . The important point is that civilians must not be targeted and Ashrawi has never called for the killing of civilians, nor even for the killing of Israeli soldiers.

On the second charge, it manifestly clear that Ashrawi accepts the principle of a two-state solution and Israel s right to exist. She has constantly struggled for a just peace, not just any peace. She has repeatedly said that negotiations cannot trade justice for peace; that politicians cannot barter away the human rights of Palestinians in the search for a solution.

Indeed this argument has been one of her major contributions to the peace process and is why some parts of the road-map on a two-state solution have been so unacceptable. Dr Ashrawi has argued that the great inequality of power between Israel and the Palestinians has disadvantaged Palestinians in the peace process. The weakness of Palestinians is exploited by Israel , which dictates the terms of the negotiations and excludes multilateral solutions in conformity with international law.

As Ariel Sharon himself said in 1998: The Oslo agreement is very important for the Palestinians since it is the only official agreed-upon document they got. We have another document, a much older one the Bible.

Under the peace deal suggested by Israel , the territory offered to Palestinians was limited in both size and quality, with Israeli settlers poaching much of the best land, water and roads. The right of return of refugees was excluded. As Ashrawi says, the foundation of Israel took over 78 per cent of the British mandate territory of Palestine , yet Israel wants to retain control over the best parts of the remaining 22 per cent comprising the occupied territories. Accepting any of the settlements amounts to consent to the acquisition of territory by force, which is indisputably unlawful under international law.

Critics say that Palestine was never a State and the Palestinians never had legal title to the land. But that misses the point. Palestinians once lived there. Then they were forced to leave. Over 4.6 million are still in exile, awaiting justice. Legal complexities do not change the fact that many Palestinians once had homes but now do not.

It is also doubtful whether Palestinians can trust their partners in peace. In 1998, Ariel Sharon told a group of Jewish militants: Everybody has to move, run and grab as many hilltops as they can to enlarge the settlements because everything we take now will stay ours... Everything we dont grab will go to them. It is hard to negotiate in good faith with a Prime Minister such as this, historically known for inciting violence.

As Ashrawi said at the World Conference Against Racism in 2001, it is little wonder that Palestinians feel victimized when senior Israeli leaders in the past have called them two-legged vermin, cockroaches, beasts walking on two legs, a people that have to be exterminated unless they live as slaves, grasshoppers to be crushed, crocodiles, and vipers. Far from being a Holocaust denier, as an English scholar, a Palestinian, and a woman, Ashrawi is painfully aware of the dehumanizing and demonising language of persecution.

Israel s first Prime Minister, David Ben-Gurion, was frank about the dispossession of the Palestinians. His words should be remembered by those who blame the Palestinians for the failure of peace: If I were an Arab leader, I would never sign an agreement with Israel . It is normal; we have taken their country. It is true God promised it to us, but how could that interest them? Our God is not theirs. There has been Anti-Semitism, the Nazis, Hitler, Auschwitz , but was that their fault? They see but one thing: we have come and we have stolen their country. Why would they accept that?.

Dr Ashrawi accepts it because, after so much violence, she wants peace.

Ben Saul is a Tutor in Public International Law at Magdalen College, University of Oxford. He wrote this opinion piece for the Sydney Morning Herald.

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