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Arafat Loyalists Fire a Warning to Reformers

Al Awda gunmen shoot as Fatah activists draft a protest statement to the Palestinian leader.

August 02, 2004|Ken Ellingwood | Times Staff Writer

JERUSALEM — Gunmen claiming allegiance to Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat fired warning shots outside a meeting hall in the West Bank city of Nablus where members of his Fatah movement gathered Sunday to discuss internal reforms, witnesses said.

No one was injured when about 15 masked members of the Al Awda Brigade fired their weapons to express displeasure over what they said was a move against the Palestinian leader.

About 60 Fatah activists from rural areas outside Nablus were meeting to discuss the recent political turmoil in the Palestinian Authority and draft a protest statement to Arafat, said one of the activists, Ghassan Douglas, in a telephone interview.

He said the armed men, who act as a private militia for Arafat, believed that the activists were plotting against him. "The purpose of the meeting was misunderstood," Douglas said

In a letter released later to reporters, the Fatah activists told Arafat that corrupt officials were "using their position in the Palestinian Authority to steal and to break the law," Associated Press reported.

The gunfire was the latest in a series of episodes to rattle the West Bank since Palestinian officials announced last week that Arafat had promised to yield some authority to the Palestinian Authority prime minister, Ahmed Korei, amid growing dissent among younger Fatah members.

On Saturday, militants of the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, which is loosely tied to Fatah, set fire to the governor's house in the West Bank city of Jenin, accusing Palestinian intelligence police of relaying information about the militants to Israel.

In an unrelated incident the previous night, gunmen abducted three foreigners -- from the United States, Britain and Ireland -- but released them unharmed a few hours later after pressure from Palestinian security officials and militant leaders.

Palestinian officials hoped that a wave of factional unrest -- which began in the Gaza Strip -- would have been halted by news that Arafat had ceded some of his power to Korei and the Cabinet. Protests in the Gaza Strip have quieted.

Last week, Korei agreed to remain as prime minister, withdrawing the resignation he submitted July 17 in frustration over rising "chaos" in the streets and his powerlessness to reform the security forces. But Arafat rejected the resignation, leaving the Palestinian government in confusion for more than a week before Korei relented.

As part of his reform pledge, Arafat vowed to yield some of his authority over the all-important security forces, though he would retain much control.

Meanwhile, Mohammed Dahlan, a former Palestinian security chief who has become Arafat's biggest political rival in the Gaza Strip, was quoted in a Kuwaiti newspaper as saying that Arafat was "sitting on the bodies of Palestinians and on the ruins."

Dahlan said that "tens of thousands of Palestinians" would protest in the streets unless "real reforms" were put into place by Aug. 10, according to an Israeli news account of his comments to the Al Watan newspaper.

Official corruption was sapping Palestinian aspirations, he said. "The concept which has thus far run the Palestinian cause has become useless."

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Special correspondent Maher Abukhater in Ramallah, West Bank, contributed to this report.

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