Al-Ahram Weekly   Al-Ahram Weekly
2 - 8 December 1999
Issue No. 458
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"'Homeland or president?'"

By Khaled Amayreh

In a move that seems to reflect the growing tensions between the official Palestinian establishment and the nationalist-liberal opposition, the Palestinian Authority (PA) acted this week to silence a group of intellectuals and civic leaders who had earlier put out a leaflet castigating what it called "PA corruption and tyranny and calling on the masses to rise up to save the homeland before it is too late".

The leaflet, which appeared on 27 November, described the six years since the signing of the Oslo Accords as "a terrifying scenario of deception and mendacity, the outcome of which will undoubtedly be felt deeply and painfully in the final-status talks".

"We were promised a state whose capital would be Jerusalem, the repatriation of refugees, dismantling of the settlements, freedom for prisoners and an economic transformation that would make us the Singapore of the region. But what we see instead is that more of our land has been usurped, the settlements have been expanded, plots against the refugees have taken place behind the scenes and prison gates have closed on our sons. The people have been divided into two groups, the one oppressing and extorting, and the other, larger one grieving and looking for deliverance," the petition stated, going on to accuse the PA of "graft, corruption, and exploitation of the Palestinian people" and "of turning the Oslo process into a formula whereby the Palestinian cause is forgotten in return for corrupt PA elements becoming rich."

What particularly angered the PA leadership was the petition's direct attack on Yasser Arafat, the Palestinian president.

"The PA President," said the leaflet, "has opened the door for opportunists to spread corruption throughout the country," adding that "our economic conditions have worsened, social bonds have weakened, and our health, educational and judicial institutions have been ruined."

The signatories called on the people to rise up to correct what had occurred before it was too late.

"The knell of danger must be sounded in every village, town and refugee camp, in every corner and hallway, even in every shop, home and office, because the homeland is being sold out and citizens betrayed," they said.

Among the document's 20 signatories were nine Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC) members, three university professors, three physicians and five leftist and centrist political activists. They included the former mayor of the town of Nablus on the West Bank, Bassam Al-Shaka'a, who lost both legs in an explosion caused by a car bomb planted by Jewish terrorists in 1981, Abdel-Sattar Kassem, who was the target of an assassination attempt by pro-Arafat Palestinian elements in 1994, and Ahmed Qatamesh, the West Bank leader of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, who was freed from an Israeli jail earlier this year after six-and-a-half years of "administrative detention" without charge or trial.

While Kassem, Qatamesh, and seven other signatories who were not members of the PLC were arrested by the Palestinian authorities for their part in the leaflet shortly after its appearance, Al-Shaka'a and Wahid Al-Hamdullah, the former mayor of the town of Anabta, also on the West Bank, were placed under house arrest.

According to PLC member Hussam Khader, one of the signatories, the petition was prematurely leaked to the press, its original intention being that it should be signed by tens of thousands of Palestinians in order to "send a clear message to Arafat that enough is enough".

Khader, a popular leader within Fatah who enjoys wide support in the large refugee camp of Balata near Nablus, was unapologetic about his part in organising the leaflet-petition.

"We felt we had to choose between loyalty to the president and loyalty to the homeland," Khader said in a telephone interview.

The same tone was adopted by Hassan Khreisha, chairman of the PLC Human Rights Committee and a signatory to the document, who said there could be no reason to shy away from criticism of Arafat if and when necessary, while PLC member Abdul-Jawad Saleh, also a signatory to the document, told students at Bir Zeit University on the West Bank that "if we have to choose between Arafat and the homeland, we will chose the homeland."

The PA for its part described the petition as "a divisive sheet besmirching our national struggle and undermining our national interest," said PA Minister without Portfolio Ahmed Abdel-Rahman, criticising those who had signed it saying that they had made no distinction between PA "excesses" and the crime of Israeli occupation.

"Yes, there have been excesses," he admitted. "But the Israelis are ultimately responsible for most of our difficulties."

However the PA leadership, which has threatened to remove parliamentary immunity from the nine PLC members who signed the leaflet, paving the way for their arrest, faces a real dilemma.

To strip a PLC member of parliamentary immunity would require the approval of two thirds of the 88-member Council, something which Arafat will not easily get, according to Palestinian sources. And even if the PA president were to succeed in stripping the nine of their immunity, this could still seriously undermine the leadership's reputation among Palestinians at large.

The Council members concerned include prominent nationalist leaders in their respective communities and enjoy significant support among Fatah rank and file. Many of them belong to large Palestinian clans, such as the Al-Shawwa in Gaza, or the Al-Masri and Al-Shaka'a in Nablus, and any step by the PA against them could cause a major reaction from these groups.

Meanwhile opposition to the PA leadership is undoubtedly growing. Last week, hundreds of Gazans took to the streets in protest against the high price of flour, attacking "the hidden mafia that is sucking our blood".

While the protesters stopped short of attacking the Palestinian leadership itself, and Arafat subsequently ordered a decrease in the price of flour and fuel, it may now be prudent for the PA to try to calm the situation down rather than potentially inflame it by moving against the Council members.

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