Tue, Jul 20, 2004 - Page 6 News List

Palestinians' patience with Arafat slowly running out

POWER PLAY Recent appointments the Palestinian president has made set off protests among his own people and strengthened the positions of his rivals

THE GUARDIAN , LONDON

Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat flashes the victory sign during a meeting at his headquarters in the West Bank city of Ramallah yesterday.

PHOTO: AFP

Palestinian President Yasser Arafat has spent months staving off pressure to surrender some of his power, particularly control over the Palestinian security forces, to those who might make better use of it.

The Americans, Israelis, Egyptians and British have attempted to cajole Arafat into retreating to the position of figurehead leader, a role they can tolerate because he remains the Palestinians' core symbol of their struggle for a country.

Arafat occasionally gave ground, but then often subverted the change. He rid himself of one troublesome Palestinian prime minister, blocked reform of the security forces and undercut attempts by his finance minister, much vaunted in the West, to ensure that the Palestinian Authority's (PA) billions were accounted for.

But Arafat now faces a potentially much tougher challenge to his overarching control -- from the Palestinian people themselves.

Bitterness, fear and desperation have bubbled to the surface in the Gaza Strip, producing what some Palestinian commentators are describing as a mutiny that challenges Arafat's web of control, if not his position as leader.

Several days of chaos have been marked by kidnappings, open threats to some in the Palestinian leadership for their corruption and mass protests against Arafat's appointment of a relative and close political allies to sensitive security posts in the Gaza Strip.

Palestinian Prime Minister Ah-med Qureia sent Arafat a letter of resignation and issued a warning.

Arafat declined to accept the resignation letter, drawing a large cross through it. But Qureia and the entire Palestinian government may still be gone within days, amid growing frustration at what Arafat's critics describe as his greater interest in retaining political control than alleviating Palestinian suffering and confronting Israeli plans to annex large parts of the West Bank.

Mahdi Abdul-Hadi, the founder and head of the Palestinian Aca-demic Society for the Study of International Affairs in Jerusalem, said the immediate confrontation was a battle between reformers and the old guard within the Palestine Liberation Organization.

But he said the challenge had been prompted by competition for power in Gaza ahead of the Israeli withdrawal of Jewish settlers next year, and deep disillusionment at the corruption and incompetence of the Palestinian Authority under Arafat's control.

"Arafat is facing for the first time a challenge from within his own house. It's a mutiny," Abdul-Hadi said.

On Friday, gunmen from the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade in Gaza briefly kidnapped the territory's police chief, Ghazi Jabali. His abductors accused him of stealing US$13 million of the PA's money -- but the real challenge was to Arafat, who viewed Jabali as one of his most trusted lieutenants in Gaza. Another group of armed men seized four French aid workers to highlight similar concerns.

The al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, an armed offshoot of Arafat's Fatah, distributed leaflets demanding that money stolen from the PA be returned and the guilty men be put on trial.

Jabali was released within hours, along with the French. Arafat immediately sacked the police chief in the hope of placating public criticism, but further infuriated people in Gaza by replacing Jabali with another ally distrusted by many, Saed Ajaz.

The Palestinian leader also named a first cousin, Moussa Arafat, as the head of the main security force in Gaza.

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