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Calls for Reform, Nonviolence Grow As Intifada Sputters After Two Years

When Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat urged Palestinians this week to stop attacking civilians inside Israel, he wasn’t trying to please only Israeli moderates.

He also was responding to calls from a growing number of Palestinian figures who believe that the two-year-old intifada has reached a dead end, and that the Palestinian struggle for independence must take a more moderate turn.

The two most prominent voices in this context are Nabil Amer, the P.A.’s former minister for parliamentary affairs, and the new interior minister, Abdel Razek Yehiyeh.

In an article this week in Al-Hayat Al-Jadida, the P.A.’s house organ, former editor Amer urged Arafat to admit that he had erred when he turned to violence two years ago, and that the Palestinians were unlikely to receive now what they had been offered by President Clinton and former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak at the Camp David summit in July 2000.

“How many times were we asked to do something that we were capable of doing, but did nothing?” Amer asked, referring to the Palestinian leadership. “And afterward, when the solution was no longer within reach, we wandered around the whole world in the hope of getting once again what had been proposed to us — only to learn that between our rejection and our acceptance the world had already changed and presented us with additional conditions that we did not consider possible.”

“We failed in the management of the historical process that we faced,” Amer concluded.

Amer, 53, resigned four months ago from the P.A. cabinet, demanding general reform. He spearheaded the demand for the establishment of a Cabinet of technocrats who would supervise the unification of all security bodies, ensure the independence of the judicial system and call for early elections for Parliament and municipal bodies.

This week’s meeting of the Palestinian legislative council, which met in Ramallah, echoed those demands.

The PLC convened a week after Yehiyeh’s dramatic appeal in a Reuters interview for an end to violence against Israel. He repeated those comments in other interviews over the weekend, including interviews to the Palestinian press.

Instead of violence, Yehiyeh suggested, Palestinians should resort to a “passive” and nonviolent resistance that he believes would be more effective.

Amer, in his article, also called on Palestinians to resist the urge to violence in the face of Israeli “provocations.”

“Let’s admit it — we have lost a lot,” Yehiyeh said of suicide attacks in the Reuters interview. “I am not saying this side is to blame, or that. I’m saying there is occupation and dealing with occupation in this manner has harmed us. Therefore we have to find other ways to deal with it. The Palestinian leadership condemns every suicide attack. Shall we stop at condemnation? Is condemnation our only job? I say the whole concept has to change.”

The encouragement of suicide bombing has been destructive not just to the Palestinians’ international image but to the younger generation of Palestinians, Yehiyeh said.

Arafat recently appointed Yehiyeh, 63, in an effort to show the Bush administration that indeed he was interested in reform. Thus, some analysts said, Yehiyeh’s moderate statements reflect Arafat’s new line.

In fact, the analysts said, Yehiyeh can express views that Arafat himself is reluctant to express for fear of antagonizing militants in Hamas, the Islamic Jihad and the Al-Aksa Brigade of Arafat’s own Fatah movement.

Others speculated that Yehiyeh was part of a good cop/bad cop routine in which moderate statements are made to please the international community while, on the ground, P.A. forces do little against terrorist groups.

A senior Israeli official told Reuters that he welcomed Yehiyeh’s remarks, but said Israel wanted action, not words.

“There is a need to assume authority, to take full control the situation,” the official said. “If they don’t control the streets, the terrorists will control” them.

Even if Yehiyeh’s intentions are good, he is still finding it difficult to implement them. Last week he met in Gaza with representatives of Palestinian political groups and tried — in vain — to convince them to hold their fire.

Yehiyeh’s main line of argument was that the Palestinians should give a chance to the “Gaza/Bethlehem First” deal he reached with Israeli Defense Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer.

Under that deal, the Palestinian Authority will resume control for security in those areas, and Israeli troops will withdraw. If quiet prevails, the arrangement will be extended to other areas.

Every Palestinian “has to help us to make the rule of law prevail in our areas, from the areas that the Israeli troops leave,” Yehiyeh told Reuters. “If the situation remains as it is, we will never be able to set up our state.”

However, Hamas, Islamic Jihad and the Fatah militias all announced that they opposed the deal, and would continue their “acts of resistance” against Israel.

Moreover, they said, they are convinced that Israel will violate any agreement and will continue to assassinate or arrest Palestinian terrorists.

At the end of the day, Yehiyeh has failed to meet the two major conditions set by Israel and the United States for changing Palestinian policy: Unifying all militias and P.A. security bodies under one umbrella, and ensuring that the fundamentalist organizations accept the authority of the Palestinian Authority.

Yehiyeh has found little help in Zuheir Manasra, West Bank head of the P.A.’s Preventive Security Service. Manasra recently replaced strongman Jibril Rajoub, but has been unable to impose his authority on the various militias in the region.

Yehiyeh’s main advantage is that he seems to enjoy growing support for his position among the Palestinian population. Analysts point to recent demonstrations in the Gaza Strip in which Palestinians called on their government to provide “bread and work,” and a recent public opinion poll that showed Palestinian support for a more moderate line.

A recent survey by Search for Common Ground, an organization devoted to conflict prevention and resolution, showed that 80 percent of Palestinians would support a large-scale nonviolent protest movement, and 56 percent would participate in its activities. The Jerusalem Media and Communications Center carried out the poll of 600 Palestinians through face-to-face interviews in mid-August.

Skeptics, however, point to other polls that have shown strong popular support among Palestinians for suicide bombings and other terrorist attacks against Israelis.

According to the Common Ground survey, 62 percent of Palestinians think a new approach is needed in the intifada. Overwhelming majorities — from 73 to 92 percent — approve of various methods of nonviolent action, according to the poll.

Large numbers of Palestinians also told the pollsters that they would be willing to participate in specific nonviolent actions, including boycotts and forms of mass civil disobedience.

Eight out of 10 Palestinians said they would approve of a Palestinian movement based on nonviolent action against the Israeli presence in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, using methods such as demonstrations, boycotts and civil disobedience, and 56 percent said they would be willing to participate.

Thus, some wondered if the Palestinian political atmosphere was ripe for a new policy along the lines Yehiyeh was urging. Even Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said last week that he believed the Palestinians were realizing the futility of their assault on Israel, making him optimistic that the two sides might soon return to peace talks.

Still, much depended on Yehiyeh’s relations with Arafat. Earlier this week, Yehiyeh denied rumors that he had resigned from his post. Rumors had it that Arafat and Yehiyeh did not see eye to eye on proposed reforms in the Palestinian Authority security services, with Yehiyeh favoring thorough institutional reform.

In an interview with the Palestinian daily Al-Ayyam, however, Yehiyeh blamed the rumors on “interested parties” seeking “to create confusion and sabotage.”

He was working as usual, he said, and was meeting with Arafat daily. Whether that contact will lead to an end to violence, allowing peace talks to resume, remains to be seen.

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