Arafat tightens grip on dissent, Mideast violence

Leader does not want his Palestinian people equated with terrorists

War On Terrorism

The World

October 10, 2001|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

JERUSALEM - In the days before U.S. warplanes began bombing Afghanistan, Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat said he wanted a cease-fire with Israel but made little progress toward enforcing one. The Palestinian public and radical militia groups didn't buy his plea that the world had changed after the terror attacks in New York and Washington, and that Palestinians had a choice: Stop the violent uprising or risk being labeled terrorists themselves.

But then, as bombs began falling, the world watched the video in which Osama bin Laden claimed the Palestinian cause as his own. It has served as a wake-up call to Arafat, who quickly ordered his police force to suppress pro-bin Laden protests. At least two people were killed this week in Gaza when crowds clashed with Palestinian police.

"Before the strikes, Arafat was not able to convince anyone that a cease-fire was needed," said Ghassan Khatib, a Palestinian political analyst. "He was weak. Now, after the tape, he is stronger. Most people do not want us to be associated with bin Laden."

If Sept. 11 changed the world, it took U.S. warplanes to begin to change the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Both Israel and the Palestinians are treading cautiously, and are more concerned about Washington than each other.

Israel has pledged not to do anything to undermine America's war effort. To U.S. officials, that means that Israel will show restraint in responding to Palestinian attacks.

Arafat is using the airstrikes to bolster his push for a cease-fire. If the Gaza riots were a test of Arafat's power, he emerged yesterday firmly in control, albeit scarred by the harsh tactics his police used to quell dissent.

Now, with the world's attention focused on Afghanistan, Israel and the Palestinians are waiting.

"Right now, there is calm," said Ziad Abu Amr, a member of the Palestinian Legislative Council in Gaza. "I don't know what all this will mean for the peace process, but I fear that without American intervention, there will be no movement on both sides. And America is not available at the moment."

Amr, like other prominent figures, condemned Palestinian police for using force to end the demonstration in Gaza, but said it will have no significant effect on Arafat's hold on power. Some noted that the protest involved about 1,000 people at one university with close ties to the militant Islamic group Hamas.

"It is embarrassing, and a setback for the Palestinian Authority, but not a major one," Amr said. "We have had internal clashes before. The Palestinian Authority is maintaining a state of calm. The militant groups have agreed to contain their anger."

However, yesterday was anything but normal in Palestinian-controlled areas. Reporters were barred from the West Bank city of Nablus and the Gaza Strip, which was under a state of emergency. Schools were closed yesterday, and universities shut down for the rest of the week.

A dispute remained about who was responsible for shooting dead two pro-Taliban protesters - a 21-year-old man and a 13-year-old boy. Some blamed police for firing into the crowd; police blamed masked militants in the crowd.

The Palestinian Authority established a commission yesterday to investigate. Leaders summoned members of Hamas and Islamic Jihad to a meeting, after which they issued a joint statement expressing "deep pain over the grave incident."

The number injured, put at 50 on Monday, soared to more than 200 yesterday. Palestinian hospital officials said 72 civilians and 142 police and security officers were hurt either by bullets, tear gas, rocks or stampeded in the rioting.

"Arafat obviously put down the protest in the wrong way," said Khatib, the political analyst. "But most Palestinians understand that he wanted to prevent a minority of citizens from leading the world to believe that we sympathize with bin Laden."

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