Arafat's secret police stir Palestinian fears

May 26, 1994|By Doug Struck | Doug Struck,Sun Staff Correspondent

JERICHO, Palestinian Autonomous Zone -- In an old public works building, Palestinian men sit in the stifling heat wearing revolvers, white shirts and ties -- the latter a sure sign they are not locals. They give each visitor a hard, probing look.

This is the new West Bank headquarters of the Palestinian secret police, whose quick appearance on the scene rings -- for some -- an ominous note among the celebrations over Israeli withdrawal.

"They are aiming at people like me. There is no question," said Riyad Malki, an engineering professor identified with a group opposed to Yasser Arafat's Fatah faction of the Palestine Liberation Organization.

The dictatorships that abound in the Middle East often use secret police -- "muhabarat" in Arabic -- to do the dirty work of eliminating opposition to their regimes: eavesdropping, wiretapping, midnight arrests, torture and, sometimes, political assassination.

Palestinians here have not been reassured by the selection of Jabril Rajoub to head the secret police in Jericho.

Few wish to speak for attribution of the man who spent 17 years in Israeli prisons and six years in exile, where he is reputed to have helped direct attacks against Israeli and Palestinian foes.

"Everybody's afraid. The guy's a tough cookie," said one well-connected Palestinian. Said another: "He's the one in charge of dirty deeds. Watch out for him."

Mr. Rajoub, 41, paints a different picture of himself and his force.

"I wouldn't call it 'muhabarat,' " he said. "In the Third World, that means terror, interrogation, imprisonment and so on. Our job is to protect the inhabitants and ensure the rights of opposition to express their views in a decent way."

His force, he said, officially is called "Preventive Security." He makes reference to operating under "democratic principles," trying to reassure Palestinians who fear a Fatah autocracy.

His men will be armed and work in plainclothes. He declines to say how many there will be. They will work throughout the West Bank. He refuses to say how they will operate against the opposition -- whether, for example, they will disarm other Palestinian groups.

"I don't think we can solve these problems through the media," he said. "How we deal with our people is our responsibility and our job."

The agreement with Israel to begin Palestinian autonomy in Jericho and the Gaza Strip permits formation of Palestinian units for "public security" and "intelligence."

Those units are supposed to be within the Palestinian police force. Mr. Rajoub said, however, that the secret police report directly to PLO Chairman Arafat. Later, he acknowledged that he also will report to Mesbah Hanafi Sakr, a mysterious PLO "general" said to have hidden from the Israelis for 27 years in the Gaza Strip and whom few say they have ever met.

Mr. Rajoub is curt in reply to questions about his activities during six years of exile. "Why do you ask such questions?" he replied, irritated.

Mr. Rajoub returned to the West Bank last week to a hero's welcome. He was imprisoned for life at age 17 for a grenade attack on an Israeli army truck. He became a leader inside prison, where he learned Hebrew and English, and eventually became a representative of the prisoners to the authorities.

He was released in a large prisoner swap in 1985 and spent three years working with Palestinian leader Faisal al-Husseini in East Jerusalem. In 1988, he was deported by Israel. He said he spent the rest of the time in Tunis, Tunisia.

Israelis believe that his job in Tunis was to organize Fatah operations in the West Bank and within Israel.

According to Yigal Carmon, former adviser to the Israeli government on terrorism, Mr. Rajoub was one of those involved in a plot to recruit an Israeli to murder top officials of the Israeli government, including Yitzhak Rabin, then defense minister and now prime minister. The murder plan was foiled before an attempt was made.

"I guess Mr. Rabin doesn't take it personally," he said of the government's approval of Mr. Rajoub's return.

Israel agreed to the creation of a security force in the hope that it would be like the Israeli secret service -- the Shabak -- and act against extreme opposition groups to stop attacks on Israelis.

"This is not our duty," declares Mr. Rajoub. "If Israel asks for full and total security, we can assure that only if we have full and total authority over our land, which we do not."

If they caught a Palestinian who attacked Israelis, they would not turn the suspect over to Israeli authorities, he said.

"It's not mentioned in the agreement. Our relationship with the Israelis is not one of friends," he said last week, in explaining why there would be "no coordination" between his forces and those of Israel.

Other Palestinians believe that Mr. Rajoub's main purpose will be to assert control over opposition for the benefit of Fatah, not Israel.

"He will do those things that are not known, so that nobody will be accountable," said Ghassan Khatib,who is identified with the opposition Palestinian People's Party.

Mr. Malki, of the opposition Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, said that it is telling that Mr. Arafat installed a security apparatus even before a civil government is formed.

"I fear a lot about the future," he said. The secret police "will be observing the people, watching everybody. They will stop any protest, any opposition," he said.

"I have been threatened three times in the last two years that my place will be in the prison" when Fatah authorities take control, he said.

"In the last 10 or 20 years, I didn't really feel my life was threatened," he said. "Now the possibility is becoming real. These are people who don't mind eliminating their own."

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