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Behind the Headlines: Disenchantment with Arafat Growing Among Palestinians

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Never before has Palestinian disenchantment with the leadership of Yasser Arafat loomed so large.

In recent months, Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip have grown increasingly critical of the Palestinian Authority leader, attacking the human rights abuses of his security police and sharply blaming him for the lack of tangible economic benefits from the peace process with Israel.

Their growing discontent became more evident than ever last week, when they failed to respond to Arafat’s calls to protest the hard-line policies of the Netanyahu government.

Arafat has stepped up his criticism of Israel in recent days, going so far as to warn of a renewed intifada, or uprising, if the Netanyahu government did not move ahead with the peace process.

In a dramatic appearance Aug. 28 before the Palestinian legislative council in the West Bank town of Ramallah, Arafat called for a general strike the next day and for a mass prayer at Jerusalem’s Al-Aksa Mosque last Friday.

His plan was to rally the Palestinian people for a massive demonstration against Israel for what he charges is Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s intransigence in living up to the terms of the self-rule accords.

The Netanyahu government has drawn the ire of Arafat by refusing to commit to a definite date for a redeployment of Israeli troops in the West Bank town of Hebron and by recently approving of the expansion of Jewish settlements in the West Bank.

But Arafat’s call for demonstrations backfired.

The general strike elicited less than the stunning response Arafat had hoped for.

In Ramallah, shops were closed, but only after Palestinian police warned merchants that they would be fined unless they closed their stores.

In Hebron, a traditional hotbed of Palestinian resistance to Israel, the local vegetable market operated as usual — an indication that Hamas fundamentalists were calling the shots there, not Arafat.

Nor did events fare better for Arafat last Friday at the Al-Aksa Mosque on the Temple Mount.

Some 20,000 Palestinians showed up — about the usual number who come there to pray on Fridays.

Palestinian officials had expected the number to reach into the hundreds of thousands.

They blamed the massive Israeli security presence mounted in anticipation of a large turnout, charging that Israel was infringing on the Palestinians’ right to freedom of worship in Jerusalem.

In yet another effort to rally Palestinians behind him, Arafat called for a protest prayer to be held Sunday at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in eastern Jerusalem.

This time, only several hundred Palestinians showed up.

During the past week, Arafat tried three times to harness Palestinian discontent. And three times he failed — because much of that discontent was aimed at him.

“Why do you think people did not show up en masse to Friday prayers in Jerusalem, as Arafat had called for?” asked Mina, 23, a student at Bir Zeit University, which is located near Ramallah.

“It is not only because the Israelis made passage from the autonomy to Jerusalem very difficult. It is mostly because they saw no reason to respond to his call.”

Arafat even took the blame for the large number of Israeli security officials who prevented Palestinians from attending the Al- Aksa demonstration.

“Why, he isn’t even strong enough to ensure our freedom of worship,” said Mustafa Abdul Hamid, 68, of eastern Jerusalem.

If peace cannot even ensure Palestinians the freedom of worship, he added, then it cannot be called peace.

The disenchantment with Arafat is even more striking when compared with the strong measure of support — 88 percent of the vote — Arafat received when he was elected president of the Palestinian Authority in January.

Along with complaining about the lack of results from the peace process – – particularly the high unemployment stemming from the Israeli closure of the West Bank and Gaza after the first in a series of terror attacks earlier this year — Palestinians have increasingly spoken out against what they see as Arafat’s authoritarian rule.

The bleak human rights record of the Palestinian Authority — cited by both Palestinian and outside monitoring groups — has included the arrests of political opponents, torture of prisoners and practically no freedom of speech.

A group of female activists who used to meet regularly and discuss politics was recently summoned to the offices of the Palestinian secret service and ordered to stop their meetings.

Nine people have died in Palestinian jails since the beginning of Palestinian self-rule.

“Arafat is such a dictator that he even dared order Arab citizens of Israel to participate in the general strike,” said Mina, the Bir Zeit student.

Like other Palestinian students, Mina did not believe that Arafat had the ability to launch a renewed intifada.

“If there is a new intifada,” said Mina, “it will be just like before, it will come from the people. It will not be in response to Arafat’s orders.”

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