Palestinians turn anger on their own leadership

Violence is linked to loss of legitimacy

March 10, 2001|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

NABLUS, West Bank - Five months after the latest Palestinian uprising began, the Palestinian economy has nearly collapsed, the rule of law in Palestinian-controlled areas has all but disappeared and institutions - apart from security services - have been hobbled, generating popular anger not just at Israel but at the Palestinian leadership itself.

Two recent incidents reveal the current state of the Palestinian territories:

In the West Bank town of El Bireh, tempers flared among a crowd of people waiting to get food and relief supplies from the United Nations, and gunfire broke out. Townspeople believe the noise alarmed Israeli soldiers at the nearby Jewish settlement of Psagot, and the soldiers fired toward El Bireh. One bullet entered an apartment, striking and killing 9-year-old Obai Darraj.

In Nablus, once a scene of bloody riots against Israeli troops, activists from Yasser Arafat's Fatah movement staged an angry demonstration outside the office of the Palestinian governor, protesting what they said was the unjust imprisonment and torture of one of their number by the Palestinian Authority's military intelligence service.

The man, Salem Mahmoud al Akra, 37, apparently suspected of collaboration with Israel, died after being transferred to a hospital, where his body bore marks of beating and of being hung by his wrists, according to the human rights group LAW.

"There is a serious danger of anarchy and diminishing legitimacy of the Palestinian Authority," says Khalil Shikaki, who heads the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research in Ramallah.

Signs of economic disintegration are everywhere. New construction has halted, tourism is decimated, agriculture is stifled and many factories have either shut down or drastically reduced production.

Many Israeli and U.S. officials agree that many of the problems result from Israeli security measures, which bar some 120,000 Palestinians from jobs inside Israel and sharply restrict normal commerce. Israeli forces have also demolished factories near Jewish settlements and military installations to deprive gunmen of cover, according to Ali Badwan of the Palestinian Ministry of Industry.

In recent days the siege has tightened further. Israeli forces dug a trench cutting off the city of Ramallah, which is under full Palestinian control, from villages to the west where Israel retains security control.

"We are in a big jail - prisoners of Israel," says Badwan, who says it could take years for the economy to recover.

Schools and health services continue to function, though under enormous stress. Teachers often can't get to work because of blocked roads; emergency rooms are overworked, and ambulances are frequently detoured.

But the conflict has also exposed weaknesses of the Palestinian Authority, the self-governing entity created under the Oslo accords. Arafat's array of police and security services continues to operate, though many critics say without regard for due process.

But courts are barely functioning. "The rule of law is frozen," says Shikaki of the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research.

Statements by United Nations envoy Terje Larsen and others that the authority is collapsing draw occasional chuckles from Palestinians. "There was nothing to collapse," says Husam Khader, a legislator with a reputation for independence.

Arafat's government is running in the red, due in large part to Israel's refusal since last year to turn over tax revenue totaling about $50 million.

Under the Oslo accords, Israel collects customs duties and sales taxes for the Palestinian Authority on goods that pass through Israeli ports en route to or from the territories. Israel is supposed to forward the money to the authority.

Some Palestinians believe unhappiness with the authority underlay the general despair and frustration that led to the explosion of violence against Israel, after Ariel Sharon toured the Temple Mount in Jerusalem last September.

A December poll showed that the public trusted Arafat more than other leaders named, but the level of trust in him had dropped from the previous June. A greater percentage of those polled said they trusted nobody.

After the uprising got under way, the authority failed to exert any leadership, either to protect the population from punishment imposed by Israel or to reform its operations so as to better use its diminishing resources, critics say.

Now, people in need of help turn less to authority institutions than to outside organizations or local leaders of the Tanzim, the Fatah militias.

"Many think the PA is not doing the bare minimum in shouldering responsibility," says Ziad Abu Amr, a Palestinian lawmaker from Gaza.

Disillusionment with the leadership has contributed to a marked change in the character of the fight against Israel.

The Aqsa Intifada, as it is called, now bears no resemblance to the popular uprising against the Israeli occupation in October, when teen-age rioters poured into the streets of Gaza and the West Bank.

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