Leading Article: A voice that must be heard in Gaza

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The Independent Online
YASSER Arafat and the people in charge of the newly autonomous Palestinian areas of Gaza and Jericho need to wake up to the understanding that freedom of expression for Palestinians is not a commodity to be rationed out at their whim.

The authorities in Gaza and Jericho have effectively shut down one of the two main newspapers serving Palestinian readers because they dislike its pro-Jordanian politics. The newspaper, An-Nahar, was established under Israeli occupation in 1985. It fought regular battles against the Israeli military censor over its right to publish the news and opinion its editor thought fit. These conflicts drew frequent attention from the foreign press and human rights groups, who loudly and rightly deplored this mutually demeaning aspect of occupation. Now, after only a few weeks of Palestinian self-rule, An-Nahar has gone out of business with barely a whimper.

The reason for An-Nahar's demise is the sharp divergence between Mr Arafat and King Hussein over the terms of the Jordanian-Israeli agreement signed in Washington a fortnight ago. These recognised Jordan's interest in the fate of Jerusalem and the king's role as guardian of the Islamic holy places, statements which Mr Arafat reckoned were hostile to his own cause. Within days, the ominously entitled 'Palestinian security officials' who do Mr Arafat's bidding had told An-Nahar to cease distributing copies.

It is true that An-Nahar survived so long only because it received subsidies from sympathisers of the Jordanian monarchy. There is still nostalgia among the older merchants and grander families of the West Bank for the somnolent days of Hashemite rule that ended so violently in 1967. They are a small minority, a fact reflected in An- Nahar's tiny circulation.

That, however, is not the point. Palestinians of all opinions should be free to choose if they want to read this newspaper or not. Yet Mr Arafat's men portentously announced that its editorial line 'contradicted the national interests of the Palestinian people' - the kind of official statement redolent of Hafez Assad's Syria or Saddam Hussein's Iraq. The Committee to Protect Journalists in New York promptly warned Mr Arafat that 'this act of censorship bodes ill for the future of press freedom in Palestine'. So it does.

The PLO has denied Palestinians a fundamental right and handed a bonus to all those in Israel who claim that Arabs cannot handle democracy. Let An-Nahar back on the streets tomorrow, and let readers, not Yasser Arafat, decide.