JERUSALEM -- Calling the Palestinian uprising "the dream that has become a nightmare," Palestinian intellectuals and PLO leaders are demanding an end to an unchecked reign of terror against Palestinians by young men in the occupied territories.
The sudden rash of crimes by masked youths, and an unprecedented collective self-criticism by Palestinian political and intellectual leaders, suggest the 42-month-old "intifada," or uprising, may be shifting into the hands of a small group of radical youths.
The masked youths, known as "shababi," have gained power in the three years since leaders of the intifada ordered Palestinian policemen to turn in their weapons and quit police forces as part of the movement's drive to end Palestinian cooperation with Israeli occupation authorities.
Palestinian intellectuals and political leaders now complain that themasked youths are becoming more frightening than the Israeli military and appear to be imposing a self-styled puritanical, political militancy on Palestinians in the occupied territories.
Yesterday, the Yediot Ahoronot newspaper carried a front-page picture of an alleged thief being flogged by masked youths in the West Bank town of Nablus while a crowd watched. Last week, masked youths were blamed for killing two men on the Gaza Strip and robbing one of them of his mother's savings --400,000. In interviews last week, Gaza residents also accused the masked men of throwing acid at girls who did not cover their heads.
"The fear relates to everyone. To the writer, the peasant, farmer, the clerk, the laborer and academician. This is a fear which encompasses all strata of the population," wrote Adnan Damiri, a journalist for the Arabic al-Fajr newspaper. "We fear for ourselves and from ourselves, from our dream which has become a nightmare."
Mr. Damiri, an al-Fatah activist who spent eight years in Israeli prisons, called the intifada "the beastthat devours its children."
At first, the shababi assured that people observed the general strikes or periodic shutdowns of business and activity in the territories, executed suspected collaborators, and punished people they suspected of dealing drugs and prostitution.
But in recent weeks the killings have increased, and observers believe that the masked youths represent not a crude form of self-rule but internal terrorism. For the first time since the intifada began, commentators are suggesting that many of the estimated 275 to 450 Palestinians killed as collaborators may in fact have been innocent.
Palestinian and Israeli militarysources said yesterday that the killings also reflect an intensifying power struggle in the territories.
On April 30, the Palestine Liberation Organization-dominated Unified Leadership of the Uprising called for an end to the killing of collaborators, and a more recent leaflet demanded an end to wearing masks except when confronting the Israelis or when all factions had agreed on a specific mission.
The continuing defiance of the masked gangs appears to signal the PLO's failure these days to harness the uprising -- which may explain its encouragement of the open criticism.
It was not until last week, for example, that al-Fajr published the remarks Palestinian intellectuals made at a closed forum in East Jerusalem three months ago.
Faisal al-Husseini, a leading Palestinian intellectual and activist, warned against a "militarization of the intifada" at the forum. The backbone of the intifada, he said, must be the masses rather than small bands of young men.
Jan Abu Shukrah, head of the Palestinian Human Rights Information Center, linked the widespread fear to the absence of Palestinian autonomy in the occupied territories.
"Palestinians are not able to establish the social, legal, educational structures to build their society insome sort of open, autonomous way," she said. "People are trying to make do and [are] desperately trying to stop the worsening of this situation."
"The Palestinians who might want to oppose these things are put in real mortal danger," and even her center's investigators were afraid to look into the alleged collaborator killings, Ms. Abu Shukrah said. "They would get no protection from anyone, neither internally nor externally."
Palestinians face a bitter dilemma in seeking alternatives. They accuse the Israelis of failing to protect them from crime and civil offenses, and yet they fear being branded traitors if they seek the assistance of occupation authorities.
Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza also accuse the Israeli military of wearing masks when arresting Palestinians, further confusing the situation for people in the territories.
One tribal leader in Gaza, Abdul Latif Abu Madain, said last week that his chauffeur observed four masked men abducting his nephew when he went to take an exam at school. The chauffeur realized they were Israeli soldiers when they dropped the boy at Ansar II, an Israeli detention camp.
A spokesman for the Israeli Defense Force said yesterday that he did not have information on the abduction.