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Arafat bows to street pressureBy Khaled Amayreh
An uneasy calm has returned to Rafah, at the southern tip of the Gaza Strip, following three days of violent clashes between protesters and Palestinian Authority (PA) police that left two teenagers dead and scores injured.
The trouble began on 10 March, when the PA State Security Court sentenced Ra'ed Al-Attar to death by firing squad for his role in the fatal shooting of Rifaat Judeh, a preventive security officer, during a chase in Khan Younis on 1 February.
Two of Al-Attar's colleagues, Mohamed Abu Shammala and Osama Ali Taha, were also sentenced respectively to life and 15 years imprisonment with hard labour, for their "indirect role" in the incident.
The trial itself was conducted on the basis of a PLO revolutionary law dating back to 1979, which critics say "has to do more with revolution than with law," whereby a defendant is granted no real chance to defend himself.
In making its plea, the prosecution, which consisted of five PA officers, utterly failed to cite unequivocal evidence proving that Judeh was actually killed by Al-Attar as the defence had demanded all along, but to no avail. The prosecution argued repeatedly that since the bullet that killed Judeh was lost, it was impossible to produce tangible "material evidence" to condemn Judeh.
Al-Attar, who insisted throughout the trial that he was innocent, accused the police of concealing the fatal bullet that killed Judeh in order to avoid an internal PA scandal in case forensic tests proved the bullet was fired from a weapon carried by one of Judeh's Preventive Security Force (PSF) colleagues.
No sooner had the military court handed down its verdict than hundreds of the defendants' relatives took to the streets in Rafah and the tiny refugee camp of Yibna nearby, shouting slogans against PA security chiefs and demanding the dissolution of the State Security Court.
The ostensibly spontaneous protest gathered momentum, as angry youths, infuriated by the verdict, began setting tyres on fire, turning garbage containers upside-down and hurling stones at the police. Police responded by opening fire on the demonstrators, killing two of them on the spot, Alaa Al-Hums, 16, and Khamis Salameh, 17, and injuring four others.
The death of the two boys further enraged Rafah's residents, particularly the relatives and friends of Al-Attar. "Arafat: pull out your dogs from the streets," shouted hundreds of young activists in unison, as others pelted policemen with stones and empty bottles.
On Thursday 11 March, hundreds of Rafah residents clashed once again with policemen, demanding that the death sentence be overturned and the military court disbanded. Both the police and protesters hurled stones at each other, resulting in scores of injuries on both sides.
The PA sought initially to impose a blackout on the protests in Rafah. Its radio station, Sawt Falastin, or the Voice of Palestine, claimed that "suspicious elements were trying to foment trouble in Rafah and the police succeeded in restoring calm."
In a terse statement, the station said that one of the two persons killed during the protests was actually shot by Israeli soldiers while the other was hit by a random bullet.
PA Secretary-General Al-Tayeb Abdul-Rahim accused "certain political groups [an obvious allusion to Hamas] of seeking to twist the arms of the Palestinian Authority." Abdul-Rahim went as far as suggesting that the protests constituted "a preview for a possible coup." Furthermore, PA Gaza Police Chief Ghazi Al-Jabali attacked the protesters saying, "They are agents of foreign powers hostile to our national interests."
Al-Jabali's remarks were dismissed by Hamas officials. Hamas leader Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, in a telephone interview from his Gaza home, described Al-Jabali's accusations that Hamas organised the protests as "false from beginning to end," since the unrest broke out immediately after the court issued its verdict, which indicated the protests were spontaneous.
Yassin argued that the protesters were only protesting "the state of lawlessness, the absence of justice, and the non-existence of the authority of law" under the PA regime.
Yassin castigated the death penalty passed by the state security court on Al-Attar, saying it was "neither just nor legal."
"You can't just send a person to the gallows if you aren't absolutely sure he is guilty," he said, adding that cases such as Al-Attar's ought to be heard by a civilian court where a defendant can present a proper defence, away from "the hasty revolutionary justice characterising the state security court."
Bassem Eid, director of the Palestinian Human Rights Monitoring Group, dismissed the entire trial of Al-Attar and his two colleagues as "another absurd expression of lawlessness under the PA."
He said that "the verdict and the trial were illegal because we don't have a real judicial system," adding that the latest death penalty passed against a PA officer convicted of raping a child last month was handed down under public pressure and carried out in a short time, in ways that deprived the defendant of the opportunity to defend himself.
Upon returning to Gaza from a visit to Britain and the Netherlands, PA President Yasser Arafat met with civic leaders in Rafah and asked them to restore calm. He promised that he would review the death sentence and find out who killed the two protesters in Rafah on 10 March.
However, it seems that more and more Palestinians are sceptical that Arafat will hold good on his promise to see to it that the rule of the law is respected within the PA autonomous enclaves.
In a society where the law of the PA and security and political interests override the authority of the law, many Palestinians are forced to seek justice through clan power. This was, in fact, personally encouraged by Arafat five years ago when he viewed a revival of clan loyalties as a way to fight Hamas on the popular level.
This clan power was behind the recent execution of a PA officer for inciting the masses against the authority. It was also behind the passing of the death penalty on Al-Attar, and the moving force behind the promised review of his sentence.