Arafat won't loosen his iron grip

Sunday, July 25, 2004

JERUSALEM -- They're calling it the "intra-fadeh" -- an uprising not against Israel but against the Palestinian establishment.

A week of turmoil in the West Bank and Gaza Strip has had Yasser Arafat reshuffling top posts and promising to cede some authority.

Arafat, a master political survivor, isn't even close to being removed from power. Millions of Palestinians idolize him as a national symbol of anti-Israeli defiance.

But even if his hold over the Palestinian Authority is steadfast, his control in Palestinian territory away from his Israeli-encircled office in the West Bank city of Ramallah is slipping, and he appears weakened.

The riots, protests, kidnappings, resignations and shooting of an outspoken Arafat critic have exacerbated the sense of anarchy.

The Palestinians scored a victory on Tuesday when the U.N. General Assembly voted 150-6 to condemn Israel's contentious West Bank barrier, but the internal and international pressure on Arafat hasn't abated.

It was highlighted in the scathing public criticism leveled by U.N. Mideast envoy Terje Roed-Larsen, who painted a grim picture of lawlessness and gang rule in the Palestinian territories and effectively blamed Arafat for it.

The stunning change of attitude, by a man the Palestinians consider a good friend, was followed days later by the brief but embarrassing abduction of two top security officials and four French workers in the Gaza Strip. Meanwhile riots broke out among Palestinians demanding an end to the corruption that has plagued Arafat's government ever since he returned from exile a decade ago.

Gazans protesting Arafat's appointment of his corruption-tainted cousin to a top security post last week held up banners that read, "the leader should listen to his people, who respect and love him."

Last week's unrest was ignited by young Palestinians jockeying for power ahead of Israel's planned pullout from Gaza next year.

It pits Arafat's loyalists against young supporters of Mohammed Dahlan, a former security chief who has been touring Gaza and calling for reform.

Many Palestinians believe that call reflects a quest for power in Gaza rather than reform.

Arafat has made some significant concessions, reinstating the ousted security chief, heeding kidnappers' demands to fire an unpopular police chief.

But he refused to fire his cousin, Moussa Arafat, as head of Gaza's security despite massive protests or to heed members' demands to reorganize the executive committee of the Palestine Liberation Organzation, participants told The Associated Press.

The Palestinian parliament threatened to strike, but instead formed a committee to make recommendations to Arafat.

All this suggests Arafat may think he can face down his opposition as he has often done before.

But Palestinian anger at Arafat reached a peak when Nabil Amr, a former Cabinet minister and Arafat critic, was seriously wounded by a sniper in the West Bank city of Ramallah.

During a heated parliament debate, one legislator, Azmi Shaibi, dared to point a finger at Arafat's inner Fatah circle, if not directly at the leader himself, saying "I think that the person responsible ... is not a simple individual but rather a big and powerful man within Fatah."

Steven Gutkin is the AP bureau chief in Jerusalem.

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