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Backlash Against Arafat Sweeps Occupied West Bank, Gaza : Mideast: Palestinian anger is directed as much at the PLO chairman as at Israel and the settler who killed 48 Muslims.


RAMALLAH, Israeli-Occupied West Bank — Carrying Palestinian flags and black banners to mourn the massacre of 48 Palestinians last week in a Hebron mosque, the 400 youths moved in a phalanx through the main street here Thursday, chanting, "Arafat, Arafat, where is your peace? Arafat, Arafat, where is your peace?"

Their anger was directed as much at Yasser Arafat, chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organization, as it was at Israel and the Jewish settler who had gunned down the Muslims as they prayed.

"Arafat, Arafat, they are killing us!" they repeated in rhythmic Arabic. "Arafat, Arafat, they are killing us! Arafat, Arafat, why are you deceiving us? Arafat, Arafat, you are killing us!"

An emotional backlash is sweeping the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip a week after the Hebron massacre, and the Palestinian rage that first focused upon the Israeli occupiers and Jewish settlers is now trained upon Arafat, once the unifying symbol of Palestinian politics.

"The mood is ugly after this atrocity, as you would expect, but not really in the ways you would expect," Mahmoud Abdul Fattah, a local grocer, said as he watched soldiers disperse the noisy demonstration with volleys of tear gas grenades. "People want to go out and kill settlers in revenge, or so they say, but they also want to kill Arafat. . . .

"Why is Arafat to blame for the massacre? Sure, he didn't pull the trigger--a Jewish settler did--but Arafat failed to prevent it. He promised us peace, if we put down our arms and accepted this agreement. But we are getting more deaths. People have lost faith in Arafat, in the agreement, in the whole peace process. It has all failed."

Even before the massacre, doubts were growing among Palestinians about Arafat's deal with Israel on self-government for the Gaza Strip and later for the West Bank. As the autonomy plans became bogged down in tedious negotiations, the doubts hardened into bitter cynicism and a strong resentment of Arafat, who was seen as giving in again and again to Israeli demands.

"The massacre lets the critics say, 'We told you so,' and supporters then have to agree--it is as simple as that," said Jamal Aboulhawa, a high school science teacher. "How can those who supported the agreement as the road to peace argue against this? How can they believe themselves? Everyone feels betrayed, first of all by Arafat."

This anger, evident throughout the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, will make it even harder for Arafat to reach the compromises necessary to implement the original agreement, local political leaders say; the popular demand now is for major Palestinian gains, such as dismantling some Israeli settlements, as an immediate goal, should negotiations resume.

"People are sick and tired of us talking peace," senior PLO negotiator Saeb Erekat commented. "They want something. . . . Any negotiations that don't have the future of the Israeli settlements high on the agenda will be senseless."

Dr. Zakaria Agha, the Gaza leader of Fatah, the principal group within the PLO, agreed.

"The most important thing is to cut out these cancerous settlements," Agha said. "After the massacre in Hebron, this is the No. 1 issue for our people, and no Palestinian negotiator can ignore it. In Gaza, we are losing the street to those opposed to the peace process."

But other Palestinian observers argue that the sheer volatility of the political mood could quickly restore faith in Arafat and support for the autonomy agreement--if there were significant gains in negotiations with Israel.

"If Arafat will get a few pennies from Israel and then maybe some dollars--real ones--from the U.S. and Europe, he can turn everything around overnight," Jerusalem businessman Nabil Feidy said. "With $200 million, Arafat can have a construction program that will put everyone to work in Gaza, and he will be a hero again."

Israeli leaders, taking the shifts into account, appear to have decided that Arafat does indeed need help. But not too much and not too soon. Under Israeli calculations, the promise of compromises on key issues should bring Arafat back to negotiations in two weeks or so--after Eid-al-Fitr, the feast that ends the Islamic holy month of Ramadan. The negotiations then, they say, must be wrapped up quickly, even at the cost of substantial Israeli concessions.

"Arafat is a survivor, and we need him to survive this crisis too," a senior Israeli official said. "But he is in real trouble on the street. How far (Prime Minister Yitzhak) Rabin is willing to go, I don't know. But Arafat is the partner in this venture, the only partner Rabin has."

A more immediate worry is Fatah's loss of control over street-level politics, for it could lead, local PLO leaders say, to the formation of secret cells intent on avenging those murdered in Hebron with attacks on Jewish settlers, or, worse, renewing the armed struggle against the Israeli occupation.

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