Palestinian Constitution – Dr. Firas Milhelm, Dr. Manuel Hassassian

This session, held in Arabic with simultaneous translation into English, was part of the Friday conference sessions that were open to the local public. One of the aims of having a day of the conference conducted in Arabic was to encourage local participation and foster real discussion – in a way, to allow the international conference participants to see into the internal dialogues of Palestinian society as they discuss critical issues. As one of the speakers remarked, the agendas are different when Palestinians talk to “the West” versus when they are talking amongst themselves, and it was very interesting for the internationals present to be privy to these internal discussions.

Dr. Firas Milhelm spoke on the development of the Palestinian Basic Law, formulated by the Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC) in conjunction with civil society, and which was, he says, one of the best constitutions in the Middle East, at least on paper. Unfortunately, it was shelved by PLO chairman Yasser Arafat because, Milhelm says, it restricted his powers; however, he later signed it when he needed popular support. Several problematic amendments to PBL (?) include one that grants tolerance to the three monotheistic faiths, but no protection for other faiths which, due to recent immigration, are now present in significant numbers in Israel/Palestine, and one which severely weakens the position of the President, which was passed when Arafat became unpopular but was still undislodgeable, and transferred most of the presidential powers to the Prime Minister, leaving the President in a role similar to the Queen of England’s in the government of the UK. Also, there is a question as to whether Palestinian law is a statement rather than the necessary enforcement of rights, as there is no recourse for suit when rights are not upheld.

Dr. Manuel Hasassian continued the discussion, speaking on the dilemma between Palestinian Basic Law and the drafted Palestinian Constitution regarding executive power, the naming of Islam as the official state religion (with a clause stating that the other monotheistic faiths are to be respected, and have some rights where religious courts are concerned), and checks and balances regarding the judiciary.

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