Moderates marginalized in West Bank

Palestinians' plea for calm goes mostly unheeded after the killing of Yassin

April 01, 2004|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

RAMALLAH, West Bank - The Palestinian street roiled last week, with tens of thousands of angry marchers calling for revenge in the days that followed Israel's assassination of the spiritual leader of the militant group Hamas.

Almost lost amid the uproar over the killing of Sheik Ahmed Yassin was a full-page advertisement in the Ramallah newspaper al-Ayyam, which was signed by 70 Palestinians with backgrounds in academia and politics.

The ad condemned the pre-dawn missile strike as Yassin left a Gaza mosque March 22 as a "criminal operation" but asked militants to refrain from exacting a price in Israeli blood.

The petition, which ran three days after the killing, said Palestinians "are almost exploding from the pain and hurt" from three years of fighting.

"Despite this, we call upon our people in the homeland, and in line with our national interest, to take the initiative from the hands of the criminal occupation gang and arise again in a wide ranging peaceful and popular [uprising]."

They were urging protest, but nonviolent protest.

This is not the first time that prominent Palestinians have made such pleas, but this group is more diverse than most and the appeal emphasizes the growing rift among Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's entrenched loyalists, outsiders searching for an alternative to violence, and a new breed of young militants frustrated with the deadly stalemate and unwilling to disarm.

"We are in a crisis," said Mohammed al-Hourani, a member of the Palestinian parliament from the West Bank city of Hebron. Though he did not sign the petition, he supports the message. "The people who put their names to this are right and are brave."

The consensus among knowledgeable Palestinians is that Israel eliminated one of Arafat's chief rivals but further radicalized society and weakened the Palestinian Authority, as well as his secular Fatah faction, by turning public sympathy toward Islamic fundamentalist groups such as Hamas.

It was no surprise that 200,000 mourners jammed the streets of Gaza, a Hamas stronghold, for Yassin's funeral. But Palestinian officials were shocked when 20,000 people in Ramallah held a similar rally. Ramallah is a cosmopolitan, wealthier, business-oriented city dominated by the Fatah movement.

Leading Fatah officials and Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia continue to call for the resumption of negotiations with Israel. However, Israeli leaders severed all contacts after a suicide bombing last month and vowed to forge ahead with a disengagement plan designed to draw borders between the sides, on Israel's terms.

Fatah's conciliatory message is being ignored by its armed wing, the Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, which contends that further contacts with Israel are fruitless and that anyone who tries, especially after the killing of Yassin, is undermining the Palestinian cause.

"We have the right to resist by any means," said Mohammed Muqbel, a member of the Palestinian National Council and a well-known speaker at rallies. "We have a just cause. Those who signed the ad are naive, relaxed politicians who are removed from reality. We have accepted and imposed cease-fires, and it got us nowhere."

Muqbel, widely known as Abu Ali, said the Hamas movement, with its calls for more suicide bombings of Israeli civilians, "is strengthening" while "the Palestinian Authority is very weak, and Fatah is collapsing."

Fatah brigade members have increasingly joined with Hamas to carry out suicide bombings and have not stopped attacking civilians living in Israel despite directives from Fatah leaders.

Palestinian pollster Khalil Shikaki released numbers this week showing that 53 percent of the Palestinians surveyed support attacks against Israeli civilians, up from 48 percent in December. The poll was conducted before Yassin's death, and Shikaki said he expects the number supporting such tactics to rise.

Qureia addressed the Palestinian parliament yesterday and again urged Israel to renew talks. For the first time, he expressed tentative support for Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's disengagement plan, which calls for the withdrawal of Jewish settlers and soldiers from the Gaza Strip. The plan could revive peace talks, he said, but only if coupled with a similar evacuation from the West Bank.

The Palestinian premier pleaded with militants to stop their attacks and accused Sharon of using them "as excuses to continue the comprehensive aggression." Israeli officials say Qureia must back his words by dismantling the armed factions, a move he has been unwilling or unable to make so far.

The Palestinian communications minister, Azan Ala Hamed, was the only member of Qureia's government to sign the petition.

Hamed said he signed the petition because he still believes "that when people see there is hope for a dialogue, the armed groups will once again become committed to the political line."

"But people are tired of talking about peace," he said. "They need to feel it. I hope that by adding my name to this document, it will help people understand this concept."

He said he has endured criticism from colleagues after his name appeared along with those of Palestinians considered out of touch with the mainstream.

"We are coming to the point where government won't be able to do anything," said Hamed, noting that police in Ramallah are too frightened in the wake of frequent Israeli army sweeps to carry their guns.

"We are very weak," he said. "Look at this city. At any time the Israeli army can simply drive in with their jeeps, park in front of this building and start arresting people. What authority do we have?"

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