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For Palestinians, Uprising Has Cost Lives--and a Living

March 02, 2001|TRACY WILKINSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

GAZA CITY — Five months on, the Palestinian uprising and the stern Israeli response are having a devastating impact on Palestinian society, its economy and the ability of President Yasser Arafat's government to govern.

The economy is in dire straits. Rivalries among political and paramilitary factions have intensified. The credibility and effectiveness of Arafat's Palestinian Authority and its many institutions are crumbling; its leadership increasingly is supplanted by more radical bodies.

Even relief checks of $125 apiece to families of those killed in the uprising are bouncing.

Much of this is by Israel's design, as well as Arafat's.

Israel sealed off most of the Gaza Strip and West Bank soon after massive demonstrations erupted in late September, followed by daily shootings and clashes. The goal, Israeli officials say, is to punish the Palestinians, pressure them to halt their role in the bloodshed and guard against terrorist attacks.

The Palestinian economy, mismanaged, riddled with corruption and small to begin with, has lost about $1 billion--roughly one-fifth of its size--since the closures began blocking the transit of people and some commodities, international officials say. Israel is also withholding at least $54 million in tax revenue it collected on the Palestinians' behalf.

With most Palestinian workers barred from Israel, unemployment has soared to the point where half the population has lost its primary source of income, according to the International Monetary Fund. The Palestinian Authority had to borrow money from commercial banks to pay January salaries for its 115,000 civil servants and security force personnel--and it faces the same crisis in a couple of weeks.

"We are going down the drain by the day," Palestinian Economy and Trade Minister Maher Masri said in an interview. On his polished wood desk, a red phone is silent; service has been cut for lack of payment.

So has service to phone lines in most of the Palestinian government's ministries. Building rents haven't been paid, either. Offices and businesses are operating at a third of their capacity at best. With their pay late, some employees cannot afford bus fare to work, not that there is much work to do.

The United Nations took the unusual step of warning that Palestinian society could be headed for "chaos and anarchy" if conditions do not improve soon.

Secretary of State Colin L. Powell took up the cause in a visit to the region last weekend, urging Israel to end what he called the "siege" on Palestinian territories. The measure, he said, harms Israeli-Palestinian relations while doing little to improve security.

Israeli officials say the Palestinians have brought the suffering on themselves. The tax money would be released and workers allowed to work if the Palestinian leadership would simply put a stop to the violence, they say.

The strain is showing. Occasional battles between rival Palestinian forces have erupted in recent weeks. When security forces recently tried to arrest a member of the radical Islamic group Hamas at the Jabaliya refugee camp in Gaza, a communal brouhaha ended in the man's freedom.

"Now the violence in turning inward," said Eyad Sarraj, a human rights advocate who runs a mental health clinic in Gaza City.

Although Palestinians blame Israel for their plight, they are also increasingly critical of their own leaders, who are widely regarded as corrupt and useless. An alliance of politicians, academics and others banded together in January to present a scathing petition to Arafat, accusing him of stifling democracy, flouting the rule of law and failing to show leadership. Another group has gone so far as to demand a new government.

And as the Palestinian Authority is seen as increasingly irrelevant, militant elements of Arafat's Fatah movement are in the ascendancy, with local chieftains ever more in charge of dispersed turfs and issuing warnings to Arafat that he'd best clean up corruption.

January's daytime assassination in Gaza City of the head of Palestinian television carried the same message.

Arafat's response to the deepening crisis has been to remain strangely absent. Based in Gaza, he has traveled to the West Bank just three times since the uprising began--to Bethlehem for the Christmas celebrations under the Western and Eastern Orthodox church calendars, and then Saturday to Ramallah. Similarly, other top government officials are less visible, while the Palestinian Legislature has been unable to meet because Israeli travel restrictions prevent lawmakers from reaching their headquarters.

In this vacuum, Arafat is deliberately allowing a sort of orchestrated chaos to sweep the lands under his nominal control, Palestinian and Israeli analysts say. He has become a willing prisoner to the militias, allowing the street to lead the leader.

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