"To me, reform means jobs for everyone without nepotism, being able to speak my mind without fear of the damp dungeons of a police cell, and living freely under a government I had a choice in electing."
So said 18-year-old Tayseer Al Amoudi, one of many residents of Gaza’s densely packed Jabalya refugee camp, before entering a school hall to sit his final exams.
Corruption is increasingly the topic of debate throughout the occupied territories – in newspaper columns and editorials, and in casual conversation.
Faced with collapsing economic, social and political institutions, analysts, politicians and citizens alike are convinced that fundamental reform is the only solution.
Ziyad Abu Amre, a Palestinian legislator and head of the Palestinian Council for Foreign Affairs (PCFA), says the need for reform is urgent.
"Without reform we cannot establish a modern and democratic political system, in which rights are guaranteed and the law prevails above all other issues. Without reform the internal situation will deteriorate, and chaos and havoc will reign," he said.
And for Amre, that reform must go beyond the Palestinian Authority (PA) to include civil society as a whole.
"Reform is a comprehensive concept, a process that should reach the entire Palestinian situation – the political system, the PA and its institutions, the PLO [Palestinian Liberation Organization] and its institutions, civil society organizations, political factions, unions, and even the private sector. We must rid ourselves of the negative values and incorrect relationships that have come to infest Palestinian society," he said.
But with so much malaise so entrenched, reform will be a long and slow process.
"Given the extent of malfunction, corruption and errors, reforming the Palestinian situation will take a long time. This is a national and collective process, and we must have a clear vision, strategy and mechanism to carry out the reform effort, gradually and completely."
Israel’s re-occupation of the West Bank in March 2002 focused increased attention on the failings of the PA – a trend compounded by US President George W. Bush’s subsequent call for a new Palestinian leadership untainted, as he put it, by "terror and corruption."
The result has been to turn Arab-Israeli relations upside down: Palestinian President Yasser Arafat has been successfully presented as the problem, and his removal from power – rather than his empowerment – as the solution.
Bush’s call for a new Palestinian leadership threw the PA into crisis, while emboldening those Palestinians seeking greater freedom.
Arafat’s image has been transformed from the indispensable to the besieged. In the meantime, Washington has firmly adopted the phraseology of "reform," echoing Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s view that Arafat is the leader of a "corrupt entity."
Amre, a former minister of culture and long-time supporter of reform, argues that while many Palestinians seek reform, the changes sought differ from group to group.
"The difference lies in the motives of the concerned parties. When Israelis talk about reform in the PA, I don’t think their goals are the same as those we have, because reform should aim to empower society and enhance its ability to survive and efficiently perform its tasks. I don’t believe the Israeli goal is to empower the Palestinian people and their society," he says.
There is, he says, a great deal of corruption in PA institutions, particularly the security services – organizations whose tasks should be limited to protecting and serving Palestinian citizens. They should not, Amre says, be involved in the economic, political, and media spheres of life in the occupied territories.
"The fact is that the security services have been involved in every activity save their main task. Extortion, attacks on property and personal freedoms: Do these services require reform? The answer is definitely ‘yes’," he says. "And I don’t care if that reform is carried out by foreign parties. If it serves our national interest as Palestinians, we must do it."
In 2002 Amre addressed the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, demanding that Arafat sign a proposed Palestinian Basic Law and an election law, and reform the PA and its institutions. Arafat did subsequently enact the two laws, as well as a law establishing the independence of the judiciary. However, Amre claims Arafat’s signature on the bills was merely an effort to alleviate the pressure he was under: little action has followed.
Amre argues that even if the PA were to undertake wholesale reform, the Israelis would be unlikely to carry out their commitments. But, he says, "carrying out these reforms would embarrass those who claim we are incompetent and unworthy. By reforming, we empty them of excuses." In any case, he says, "regardless of their response, we need reform – a process carried out according to our national Palestinian agenda."