Arafat losing support in Gaza

Militant groups claim backing of disgruntled refugees

October 13, 2001|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

NUSEIRAT REFUGEE CAMP, Gaza Strip - It's in the apartment blocks here without water, and in the markets here where the odor of sewage overpowers the aroma of fresh fruits, that public sentiment is slowly turning against Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and his government.

This is where opinion is solidifying that Arafat has abandoned his struggle against Israel and surrendered to the West. In nearby Gaza City, Palestinian police used force to end a pro-Taliban demonstration this week, and the crowd accused police of firing into the crowd and killing two Palestinians.

Mohammed Akel, 52, grew up in this refugee camp. One of his six sons, throwing rocks at Israeli soldiers, was shot and killed in 1989. Another son, 21-year-old Anwar, was shot and killed Monday during the pro-Taliban protests outside Islamic University. Arafat's police, ordered to quash any gathering that criticized the United States or praised Osama bin Laden, had seemed desperate to control the crowd but blamed the shootings on masked militants.

Akel said he will not erect the traditional mourning tent or accept condolences until the Palestinian police officer who shot his son in the chest is tried and executed. "The Palestinian Authority are losers," Akel said yesterday. "They are a failure."

Such harsh sentiment has festered for months, as the deadly struggle with Israel continues amid charges of corruption within the Palestinian hierarchy. But rarely has dissent been so open. Camp residents, speaking at noon prayers at the local mosque, express deep discontent with Arafat's regime and a strong leaning toward the more militant group Hamas - which claims the support of 65 percent of the 40,000 residents here.

Since the attacks of Sept. 11 in New York and Washington, Arafat has been trying to secure a cease-fire with Israel. He is anxious to avoid being considered a terrorist ally of bin Laden and anxious too to secure a peace with Israel. His cease-fire orders have significantly curbed violence, but not enough to satisfy Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. And Arafat, to avoid any linkage to bin Laden, has banned public demonstrations.

But Palestinians have made it nearly impossible for Arafat to stop the rallies. And charges that his police force killed two fellow Palestinians to stop a protest against an American military attack on a Muslim country have caused deep wounds.

"The Americans told Arafat that if he plays along, we will get our own state," Akel said, sitting amid his extended family. "So now Arafat wants to stop the intifada. In the end, the Americans will laugh at him and give him nothing."

After Akel's son was shot, residents of Nuseirat torched the local Palestinian police station, a building that they had helped to build a few years ago as part of a community project. They painted graffiti on the camp walls, practically daring police to come inside.

"All policemen, how do you shoot bullets at those you protect?" reads one stanza, painted in the Hamas color, green. "You are supposed to be shooting bullets at the Zionists. ... The blood of our martyrs will stay as a curse."

Just outside the camp, Palestinian Police Col. Abu Ali Amoudi sat behind an old desk in a one-room concrete hut next to his burned-out station. He was under orders not to talk to reporters, he said, "to avoid escalating" the tense situation. But he said police are now under "standing orders not to harm anyone, even if we are harmed."

The Palestinian Authority has tightly restricted reporters; officials worry that even a single photo of a Palestinian holding a bin Laden poster will taint the Palestinian cause. So a pro-Taliban rally by the militant group Islamic Jihad yesterday was off-limits to reporters. But a Palestinian Authority-engineered march to show unity between Arafat's Fatah faction and Hamas was open to coverage.

In the West Bank city of Nablus, thousands of Palestinians defied a ban on protests and marched through the streets, led by Fatah leader Marwan Barghouti, shouting "Bush is the father of terrorism" and "bin Laden, bin Laden." There were no reported skirmishes with police.

In the Nuseirat camp, the message was the same, albeit muted. Residents said they condemned the terrorist acts in the United States, but side with bin Laden because he is a Muslim and because they are desperate to embrace anyone who takes up their cause.

At the local mosque, the prayer leader spoke in a measured voice but leveled harsh criticism at Palestinian leaders. He urged tolerance toward America and the Palestinian police, now lumped together as one enemy.

"God does not like the blood of Muslims to be spilled," the prayer leader said in remarks that were broadcast on speakers throughout the camp. By casting their lots with the United States, he said, the Palestinian leadership has "abandoned Islamic law and turned itself over to international law."

Then he turned to the Palestinian police and warned them: "Those who carry weapons are not allowed to point them at the chest of a Muslim. You are only to point them at one side - the Israelis."

The message was clear to those outside. While their leader Arafat sees any linkage to bin Laden as the end to the Palestinian quest for an independent state, many Palestinians now see Arafat as a traitor to their yearlong fight.

"We tried peace before and it didn't bring us anything," said Asharef Ziad, 28, the camp's Hamas representative. "We can offer people more than the Palestinian Authority. Hamas will let people fulfill their dreams - resistance, fighting and liberation."

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