Islam to be official religion

AP, Jan. 20, 2003
http://yellowbrix.com/pages/newsreal/Story.nsp?story_id=36024995

JERUSALEM (AP) — A future state of Palestine will be a democracy headed by a powerful president who cannot serve more than two five-year terms, according to the draft of a constitution obtained Monday by The Associated Press. Islam will be declared the official religion.

The drafting of a constitution is a key element of a U.S.-backed international peace plan, a so-called “road map” to Palestinian statehood by 2005. The constitution is to be completed in the second stage of the plan, coinciding with the formation of a provisional state with temporary borders.

The 229-clause draft does not address key issues to be negotiated in a final peace deal with Israel, including the borders of a Palestinian state and the status of Jerusalem and its holy sites.


The draft given to AP was incomplete, missing sections on the fate of 4 million Palestinian refugees and their descendants — an issue that contributed to the collapse of peace talks two years ago.

The constitution was drafted by dozens of Arab, Palestinian and foreign legal experts, with the committee headed by Palestinian Planning Minister Nabil Shaath. A final version is to be adopted by the PLO’s 120-member Central Council after several sessions, with time set aside for public comment.

Israel derailed the first council meeting earlier this month, imposing travel bans on Palestinian officials in response to a Tel Aviv suicide attack that killed 23 bystanders.

Raanan Gissin, an aide to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, dismissed the draft. “There is no doubt that all these attempts to put out a constitution, and talk of reform are just meant to give legitimacy to Arafat, to give the impression of reform,” he said. ”This is all duplicity, it’s part of the attempt to deceive. Even this paper, I don’t think he has any intention of implementing.”

The constitution is to be given final approval in a referendum, that would be held together with Palestinian presidential and legislative elections. The elections were initially scheduled for Jan. 20, but were postponed because of Israel’s continued troop presence in Palestinian towns.

A final peace agreement with Israel would also have to be approved in a referendum.

In the section on borders, three alternatives are presented: not mention borders in the constitution, declare that the West Bank, Gaza Strip and traditionally Arab east Jerusalem make up the Palestinian state, or say the future borders will be based on U.N. resolutions.

The document says that “Islam is the official religion of the state,” but that the state will guarantee the sanctity of places of worship and respect other religions. Most of the 3 million Palestinians in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip are Muslims, while about 50,000 are Christians.

Declaring Islam the official religion might help ensure support of militant Islamic groups — Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat’s key political rivals — for a constitution.

A spokesman for the Latin Patriarch said a meeting with a Palestinian Authority official to discuss the issue was canceled because of travel restrictions imposed by Israel on Palestinian towns. Father Shawki Batirian said until the meeting takes place, the Latin Patriarch would not comment.

The document says Jerusalem is the capital of Palestine, but does not go into detail. Palestinian negotiators have demanded control over east Jerusalem, captured by Israel in the 1967 Mideast war. Key holy sites of Islam, Judaism and Christianity are in the eastern sector’s walled Old City.

The constitution defines Palestine as a parliamentary democracy. Parliament will have 150 members in two chambers, one representing the residents of the state and the second the Palestinians in the diaspora. The diaspora chamber cannot make decisions on national issues, and those living in exile don’t have the right to vote.

The president, elected directly for a maximum of two five-year terms, is given considerable powers. He heads the executive authority, names a prime minister and commands the security forces. There is no specific mention of a military; Israel demands that Palestine be demilitarized.

The president can dissolve parliament only if he wins backing in a referendum.

The prime minister is in charge of day-to-day affairs of government, but reports to the president.

The naming of a prime minister was a key reform demand by the United States and Israel, as a way of sidelining Arafat. However, Arafat blocked the idea, and reform-minded activists in his Fatah group stopped pressing him to share power after Arafat’s headquarters came under renewed Israeli military siege in September, resulting in a rise in support for the Palestinian leader.

The constitution guarantees freedom of movement, protects citizens from being sent into exile or extradited to another country, and outlaws searches or arrests without warrants.

Arafat’s Palestinian Authority has largely been a one-man rule, winning low marks from Palestinians complaining about corruption and mismanagement. The self-rule government was formed in 1994, as part of interim peace deals, but has been largely destroyed as a result of Israeli military offensives against Palestinian militants in the past 28 months of fighting.

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