Arafat proclaims birth of a new democratic state First Palestinian Council inaugurated with grand promises, long speeches

March 08, 1996|By Doug Struck | Doug Struck,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

GAZA, Gaza Strip -- The first Palestinian Council was inaugurated yesterday in fitting fashion for a legislature: a smoke-filled room, resounding with grand promises and long speeches.

The 88 newly elected members of the council heard their president, Yasser Arafat, thunder vows to defeat Palestinian extremists. As the council met, Palestinian and Israeli police continued to make arrests of Islamic fundamentalists suspected of supporting suicide bombers who have killed 60 people in the past two weeks.

"We will not allow violence or terrorism to stop this peace process," Mr. Arafat declared. "They are trying to kill the Palestinian dreams."

The council will serve as the legislature for the Palestinian authority that presides over 2 million Palestinians in the Gaza Strip and cities of the West Bank.

"We are witnessing in these hours the birth of a new democratic state in the Middle East," Mr. Arafat proclaimed.

The council members were the winners of the Jan. 20 national election that initially was commended by international observers as a successful exercise of democracy. But that verdict was tarnished by numerous charges of fraud and vote-rigging -- all rejected by the Palestinian authorities.

The council is likely to find that the greatest power is wielded by Mr. Arafat and an executive Cabinet he is expected to appoint in about a month. Yesterday, Mr. Arafat engineered the election of loyalists to the speaker and deputy speaker posts, defeating a bid by critic Haider Abdel Shafi to lead the council.

Ahmed Korei, Mr. Arafat's economics chief who also is known as Abu Ala, was elected speaker by a vote of 57 to 31. Mr. Korei was a key negotiator in secret talks that led to the 1993 peace pact between Israel and the Palestinians.

There was a minimum of pomp and no celebration to the inauguration, which was held while Palestinians are confined to their cities, towns and villages by the tightest closure imposed by Israel in years.

Israel stationed tanks along its border with the West Bank and bulldozed obstacles onto back roads to try to prevent Palestinians from crossing into Israel. Mr. Arafat put armored personnel carriers in Gaza in a show of force. TC Council members from the West Bank had to obtain Israel's permission to travel to Gaza past numerous new checkpoints set up by the Israeli army to curtail Palestinians' movement.

They arrived in Gaza to a demonstration of the task they face in rebuilding Palestinian areas after nearly three decades of neglect under Israeli occupation. Heavy rains flooded the dirt streets of Gaza, giving the place all the appeal of a wet dog. The feeble sewage system overflowed, creating huge puddles of foul water.

Inside a community center, the new council members and guests sat through three hours of speeches. Smoke slowly filled the hall, obscuring the no-smoking signs.

Mr. Arafat, who was elected president Jan. 20 with 87 percent of the vote, already had sworn himself in as chief executive in an oddly quiet, exclusive, 10-minute ceremony Feb. 12.

Mr. Arafat appears to remain uncomfortable with many of the expectations of democracy and power-sharing. In a 50-minute speech yesterday, he talked little of the importance or function of the new council other than in vague generalizations.

Mr. Arafat wore green military fatigues to the ceremony.

Council members swore an oath to "be faithful to the homeland and to follow the constitution," which has not yet been written.

Mr. Arafat said Palestinians and Israelis should "respect the time schedule for the peace process." He said the Palestinians must change a 1968 national charter that calls for the destruction of Israel and that Israel must withdraw from Hebron this month and begin final negotiations in May, according to that timetable.

But some council members oppose a change in the charter.

"Don't ask me about a charter when we are under siege, when we don't know how we will bring bread and medicine to our children," said Salah Tamari, a member from Bethlehem.

"The Israelis are mistaken if they think we will accept this humiliation. They are totally mistaken if they think we will always be on the receiving end of this," he said.

"The mood is very tense," said Marwan Kanafani, a spokesman for Mr. Arafat who was elected to the council, from Gaza City. "We hoped to meet in better conditions.

"We are not going to let anyone endanger the Palestinian society. We will put an end to these senseless killings."

Pub Date: 3/08/96

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