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Arafat’s Palestinian critics getting bolder

JERUSALEM, Dec. 5 (JTA) — Mouawiya al-Masri was returning to his home in the West Bank town of Nablus when three gunmen attacked him.

Luckily, Masri was only lightly wounded in the foot in the Dec. 1 incident — but he learned the hard way that one should think twice before publicly attacking the Palestinian leadership.

A Palestinian legislator, Masri was one of 20 leading Palestinian intellectuals and political figures who had signed a leaflet that sharply criticized the Palestinian Authority.

The leaflet’s harsh language — particularly its blunt accusation that Yasser Arafat had “opened the door to corruption” within the self-rule government — infuriated the Palestinian Authority president.

Within 24 hours, nearly half of the signatories were detained at police stations or put under house arrest.

Among those arrested were several popular personalities, including Bassam Shaka, the former Nablus mayor who was the victim of a suspected Israeli attack that left him permanently disabled, and Ramallah-based author Ahmad Qattamesh, who is believed to have spent more time in Israeli administrative detention than any other Palestinian.

Arafat reacted strongly because he is currently more concerned with solidifying his rule than with burnishing his image as a democratic leader. With Israel and the Palestinian Authority finally negotiating a final peace agreement after years of delay, the attack on him came at a particularly delicate time.

When he lit a Christmas tree Saturday to kick off millennium festivities in Bethlehem, he did not address the crowd, apparently finding it preferable to downplay the significance of recent events.

Israeli officials, too, saw fit to avoid a public reaction to the leaflet. They prefer to conduct the negotiations with Arafat than with some unknown quantity.

The dissent that erupted against Arafat’s regime highlights a significant problem facing Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak.

He is trying to conclude a final-status accord with Arafat and to revive negotiations with Syrian President Hafez Assad. Both leaders, however, are nearing the end of their political careers. If either career were to end — of natural or other causes — it could create a big question mark over the future of the respective negotiations.

The leaflet, “Cry of the Homeland,” criticized the Palestinian Authority for having failed to deliver on a number of key promises: creating a Palestinian state with Jerusalem as its capital, securing the return of Palestinian refugees, getting Israel to agree to dismantle Jewish settlements, obtaining the release of prisoners from Israeli jails and creating an improved economic climate.

But the critics went a step further, charging that the Palestinian leadership was guilty of following “a systematic methodology of corruption, humiliation and abuse against the people.”

The “Oslo agreement was like a barter trade to enrich a number of corrupt people in the Palestinian Authority,” they wrote.

The leaflet reflected a growing readiness among political figures to challenge Arafat’s leadership. But, perhaps more importantly, it reflected a widespread feeling of despair.

“Under Arafat’s personal rule, there is no possibility of bringing about democratic reform,” said Palestinian political analyst Khaled Amyreh.

“The Palestinians should therefore forget about democracy under Arafat and start preparing for the post-Arafat era,” he added.

Within hours of the leaflet’s Nov. 27 publication, the Palestinian street witnessed a series of pro- and anti-Arafat rallies.

One demonstration initially planned to demand the release of prisoners from Israeli jails spontaneously turned into an anti-Arafat protest.

The Palestinian legislative council convened to discuss the leaflet, and after a particularly stormy four-hour session decided not to lift the parliamentary immunity of those legislators who signed the anti-Arafat manifesto. But at the same time, the legislators agreed to condemn the leaflet.

The appearance of the leaflet, and the subsequent arrests, could well have more repercussions in the coming days.

On Sunday, five of the Palestinian intellectuals who were jailed for signing the leaflet announced they would hold a hunger strike to protest their imprisonment.

Palestinian officials close to Arafat are meanwhile trying to minimize the importance of recent events.

Palestinian Cabinet minister Ziad Abu Ziad said of the shooting incident, “It was nothing really, just a minor wound.

“I met Dr. al-Masri afterward, we had dinner together and everything was OK.”

But those attempting to defend the honor of the 70-year-old Palestinian leader soon had new troubles.

Unidentified dissidents who over the weekend hacked into the computer system of PLO headquarters in Tunis subsequently charged that Arafat has concealed billions of dollars in secret foreign bank accounts and investments.

The London Telegraph reported Sunday that the hackers discovered that the PLO maintains about $8 billion in numbered bank accounts in Zurich, Geneva and New York.

There is nothing new to the charges of corruption within the Palestinian Authority.

Two years ago, the authority’s comptroller published a detailed account on corruption and inefficiency within the self-rule government.

Along with charging Palestinian officials with mismanaging millions of dollars, the comptroller pointed to the extravagant lifestyles of some Palestinian leaders that contrasted dramatically with the dire needs of the population at large.

Arafat promised at the time that he would take the necessary measures to put an end to corruption — but no progress was made.

On the contrary, journalists who in the ensuing years published critical articles were detained for interrogation.

Instead of the promised reforms, political suppression continued.

Meanwhile, Hamas and other opposition parties are seeing an opportunity in the events surrounding the leaflet’s publication.

“This incident should not pass without real accountability, to protect the country from discord,” Hamas founder Sheik Ahmed Yassin said, adding that Arafat should do more to fight corruption and to respect “pluralism and the freedom of speech.”

Nor did Hamas leaders leave matters at that. On Saturday, they sponsored an anti-Arafat rally in Nablus that drew some 1,500 demonstrators.

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