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Behind the Headlines: Despite Jubilation, Arafat Faces Many Obstacles Ahead

December 18, 1995
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Near the Brothers Muna bakery in downtown Nablus, three children are playing cops and robbers.

“I will be the cop, you the robber,” says one.

“Which cop, Israeli or one of ours?” asks his friend, sounding a bit confused.

He is not alone. It is a time of a major change – and confusion – in the West Bank. Old realities have died and the new one is not yet clear.

Palestine Liberation Organization leader Yasser Arafat stood last week on top of the former Israeli military government building in Nablus, trying to lead the way to the Promised Land.

“After `Gaza First’ came Jenin, Tulkarm, Nablus, Kalkilya, and now Bethlehem, Ramallah, Hebron and eventually our sacred Jerusalem,” he said.

The masses who gathered by the building roared with enthusiasm.

It was yet another climax in Arafat’s new career as peacemaker.

But the triumphant performance of Arafat and his people in Nablus, Kalkilya and Bethlehem over the past week belies the internal and external difficulties confronting the Palestinian community.

The major internal difficulty is the potential for local violence. The external difficulty lies with the uncertain role of Jewish settlers on in the West Bank.

In Nablus on Dec. 11, Arafat had good reason to be pleased. After the labor pains that have accompanied Palestinian autonomy, his political stock is on the rise. As demonstrated by the warm embrace of cheering Palestinians, Arafat has become the symbol of Palestinian nationalism.

Public opinion polls show a sure win for him in next month’s elections for the Palestinian governing bodies.

The Palestinian people adore him with the same uncompromising enthusiasm with which they have hated the Israelis.

They have chanted with him “in spirit and in blood we shall redeem Palestine,” with the same vigor that they had burned the Israeli flag as Israeli troops were leaving Nablus two days earlier.

“The burning, the petrol bombs, these were all expressions of our determination that time has come for an independent Palestinian state,” said one bystander.

“It was so difficult to live under the Israelis,” said his friend. “Finally, it is all over, behind us.”

But what is next for the Palestinians as they proceed with their limited form of self-government?

The potential for local violence is very real.

In the past, it was aimed at the Israel Defense Force and its Palestinian collaborators. Now the enemy has left, but the gangs – and the arms – remain.

Even beneath the festivities here last week, the opposition was evident.

Slogans sprayed on the walls of Nablus read: “The security of the people is more important than fax machines,” an expression of displeasure with the Palestinian Authority bureaucracy, which was characterized in the past by its directives sent via fax from Tunis, site of the former PLO headquarters, to the territories.

The slogans were signed: “The revolution.”

Until a few weeks ago, the symbol of the revolution in Nablus and its vicinity were the Fatah Hawks, and their leader Ahmed Tabouk.

The Fatah Hawks used to be a military unit, part of Arafat’s Fatah movement, the main bloc inside the PLO.

Tabouk and his men took it upon themselves to restore “order” by shooting the knees of collaborators with Israel and simple criminals.

Earlier this month, rumors spread that Tabouk was shot dead inside the Nablus Casbah by someone he had come to punish. But the rumors were premature.

Tabouk showed up the next day marching through the narrow alleys of Nablus fully armed, more confident than ever. In a series of interviews, he expressed full support full Arafat, and for the idea of a Palestinian state “side by side” with Israel.

But Arafat was not buying it.

The first large-scale operation of the Palestinian police in Nablus was to round up dozens of Fatah Hawks in a sweeping operation Sunday. The sweep was a clear sign that there was no room for private militias once the Palestinian police were in place.

After a 10-hour standoff in the city’s market, during which two Fatah Hawks were wounded, Tabouk surrendered to the Palestinian police.

The PLO reportedly wants to try him in connection with rebelling against its leadership.

The operation was reminiscent of the decision of David Ben – Gurion at the time of the establishment of the state to disarm all the military groups that had existed prior to the state, including the much-beloved Palmach commando units.

The problem for Arafat, however, is that there are many Tabouks in the West Bank.

They have been particularly active in the past two weeks, throwing hand grenades at IDF soldiers in Nablus, shooting at an Israeli car at the Etzion bloc and shooting at IDF patrols and Jewish sites in Hebron.

Arafat has to control them all, if he wants to control the Palestinians.

His success in coping with Hamas, the Islamic fundamentalist movement, may be the reason behind the iron fist exercised this week against the Fatah Hawks.

Dozens of Hamas activists have deserted their ranks and joined Arafat in the past year. The latest such defection was that of Sheik Imad Faluji, who recently quit his position as editor of Al-Wattan, the Hamas newspaper.

At the same time, Bader Yassin, the brother of Sheik Ahmed Yassin, the spiritual leader of Hamas who is serving a sentence in an Israeli jail, was appointed director general of the Palestinian Transportation Ministry.

Hamas, no longer playing the role of the outsider, launched political talks with Arafat on Monday in Cairo.

The Palestinian Authority is apparently hoping to convince Hamas, which has rejected the accords with Israel, to end its war against the Jewish state and take part in the first Palestinian elections Jan. 20.

On the external front, the role of the Jewish settlers is much less clear.

As Israeli troops hastily left Nablus last week, Eli Rosenfeld, the director of Yeshivat Yosef in Nablus, declared that the continued operation of the yeshiva was a matter of “materializing our legitimate rights.”

But for the Palestinians, a continued Jewish presence in Nablus and other West Bank cities such as Hebron is grounds for a potential confrontation.

Palestinian leaders have often expressed concern that the settlers would deliberately provoke trouble in the autonomous West Bank towns to prove their point that Israel has lost out in the deal. Those leaders often fail to mention, however, the potential – and sometimes bloody – provocations by Palestinian opponents to the peace process.

But beyond the external and internal difficulties, the main challenge to the Palestinian self-rule comes from within its own ranks. Does it have the necessary clout to run the autonomy? Does it have the means to prevent a repetition of the Israeli flag-burning in Nablus, which angered so many Israelis?

As Israeli Internal Security Minister Moshe Shahal declared over the weekend: “Israel will not make concessions to the Palestinian side. They must prove that they are worthy the powers given to them.”

And Zuheir a-Dabai, a journalist and well-known PLO activist, warned that the problems facing the new Palestinian entity are great.

“We imitate only Israeli might, not their brain,” he said. “Measuring strength is not by the rifle or by your military might, but your ability to build for the sake of your community.”

A-Dabai said the Palestinians were missing those basic elements that had served the Zionist movement to build the infrastructure of the state: public institutions, money and an educational orientation.

“We need a deep change in our mentality, culture and customs,” he said, “and this takes a very long time.”

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