JERUSALEM, March 15 (JTA) — Is Yasser Arafat losing his grip on power? The sight of Palestinians protesting against Palestinians last week in the streets of Gaza — where police shot and killed two protesters and the air hung thick with the smoke of burning tires — prompted some to wonder whether Arafat had a full-blown intifada on his hands. But while most observers believe that Arafat’s grip remains intact for now, the protests provided a dramatic reminder of the deep frustrations that periodically boil to the surface of Palestinian society. “This is not yet an intifada against Arafat,” Res. Col. Shalom Harari, a former Arab affairs adviser at Israel’s Defense Ministry, said, using the term for uprising. “But it means that if Arafat goes, the street may be ripe for a military coup against the present ruling establishment.” Along with the frustrations among his people over the lack of progress in the peace process, Arafat has to contend with the frequently violent internecine strife involving local clans. But perhaps most dangerous of all is the deep resentment felt by the Palestinian masses regarding what they perceive as a corrupt judicial system. It was this sense — that an arrogant ruling elite is regularly dispensing injustice in the Palestinian courts — which brought the crowds into the streets last week for two consecutive days of violent demonstrations. The protests erupted after a Palestinian court handed down a death sentence in a politically charged murder case. The March 10 sentence had been imposed on Raed Attar for the slaying last month of policeman Rifat Joudeh. To protest the verdict, members of Attar’s family marched in the southern Gaza town of Rafah, where they protested outside the local headquarters of the Palestinian police. The police opened fire to disperse the crowd — and when the smoke cleared, two Arab teen-agers lay dead on the streets. Arafat, who has the final say on death sentences, subsequently bowed to public pressure and agreed to review Attar’s case. He also ordered the release of all those involved in the protests. Some observers said Arafat had no choice in the matter. “I would regard this as an act of submission,” Palestinian human rights activist Bassem Id said in an interview. “Arafat is giving in to the street. “He simply runs the business without a proper legal system,” he said, echoing a familiar Palestinian complaint that the legal system is totally dependent on Arafat’s executive powers. “We don’t need a revolution,” he added. “The laws are all there, they only need to be executed” properly and consistently. To accomplish this, Id called for the appointment of a respected independent judge to head the Palestinian judicial system. Palestinians have long been complaining about the swift, summary sentences dispensed by the Palestinian courts. Last year, two Palestinian security officials who killed two agents of another agency — and who belonged to a different clan — were executed, with Arafat’s approval, after a trial that lasted only a few hours. And last month, a Palestinian colonel who had been convicted of rape was executed by a firing squad on the night the sentence was issued. Palestinians have long complained that security officials act as if they are above the law, that they treat the local population as they please. Police officers enter homes without court orders and carry out searches without any legal authority, critics charge. In addition, critics complain, the judicial system is subservient to political expediency. According to Id, some 400 political prisoners have been languishing in Palestinian jails for more than two years without trial. Critics further charge that the absence of the rule of law goes far beyond political differences, noting that even tax offenders are frequently jailed without trial. Compounding the situation are the large number of security agencies operating without any clear-cut distinctions regarding mission or responsibility. There are at least eight different security agencies working for the Palestinian Authority, with members often belonging to rival clans. At last week’s trial, it emerged that Attar and two co-defendants, who were convicted but not sentenced to death, were members of one of the security agencies. But there were also claims that they were members of Hamas. In any event, all three were on Israel’s wanted list. Some observers believe that Arafat is devoting too much time to the peace process — particularly whether to declare Palestinian statehood in May — at the expense of pressing domestic social issues. “Arafat spends most of his time trying to revive the peace process, or thinking about May 4,” said Id, who charged that the Palestinian leader “lacks the proper infrastructure to create a state.” The Palestine Liberation Organization’s governing bodies are expected to meet next month in the self-rule areas to decide whether Arafat should unilaterally declare Palestinian statehood in May. The 125-member Central Committee and the 18-member Executive Committee are expected to review the recommendations from American and European leaders that Arafat postpone the declaration past May 4, the end of the interim period in Israeli-Palestinian negotiations under the terms of the Oslo accords. Meanwhile, Arafat finds himself not only contending with the resentments of the Palestinian public, but also engaging in an ongoing sparring match with human-rights groups and Palestinian legislators. Earlier this month, a human rights group based in the West Bank town of Ramallah said complaints by Palestinian citizens against the Palestinian Authority nearly doubled last year. The Palestinian Independent Commission for Citizens Rights dealt with 825 complaints last year, an increase of 97 percent from 1997, according to its annual report. Haidar Abdel Shafi, the group’s commissioner, blamed the increase on the absence of checks on the Palestinian Authority’s power. A similar criticism has repeatedly been sounded by the Palestinian legislative council, which has often complained about its lack of real power. Since its establishment three years ago, the Palestinian legislature has enacted 59 laws — but only nine have received Arafat’s necessary signature. Relations between Arafat and the legislature further eroded when Palestinian lawmakers revealed two years ago the presence of widespread corruption among some of Arafat’s ministers. Arafat — who had not been personally linked to the allegations — promised at the time to clean up shop, but little was done and some of the same corrupt ministers remain in power. Critics of the Palestinian leader say Arafat should act soon to confront the many criticisms confronting his government, warning that the continued frustrations coming from so many sectors of Palestinian society constitute a ticking time bomb. With Hamas and other rejectionist groups waiting in the wings, they warn, a failure to confront the sources of social tension could one day explode in Arafat’s face.
SIGN UP FOR THE JTA DAILY BRIEFING