Hopefully a Change in the offing for the Palestinians

From todays Telegraph

[/quote]Arafat and old guard are running out of time
By Patrick Bishop in the West Bank
(Filed: 04/09/2004)

There was a time when it was impossible to escape the sight of his rubbery, stubbled features beaming down from half the walls in town.

Ramallah was Yasser Arafat's capital, the administrative seat of the Palestinian Authority, which came into being 10 years ago on a tide of optimism. Last week there was not a single portrait to be seen.

Yasser Arafat: no political gains
Among his subjects, hope for the future has all but evaporated and Mr Arafat sits in the battered compound in a corner of the city where he has lived for more than three years, afraid to leave in case the Israelis block his return.

At the rusty gates one Palestinian did speak up for his leader. "The reason there are no posters is that he does not wish to brag," said Rami Snobr, a young guard. "He is in the heart of his people with or without pictures."

The view of Imad Muna, an East Jerusalem bookseller, is more typical of the voices being heard in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. "Arafat should go immediately," he said. "This is not a political opinion. This is not an extremist opinion. It's the opinion of the majority of people."

After a decade of misrule Palestinians seem to have lost faith in their president. Gratitude at his achievement in keeping their cause alive and reluctance to criticise for fear of giving comfort to Israel once shielded him from direct attack but no longer.

Palestinians are tired of the corruption and nepotism that infect the Palestinian Authority. They are also battered from the ruthless responses of Israel to four years of insurrection which has caused 3,000 deaths, many of them civilian, with no political gains.

The new willingness to speak out is a vindication of a long critical campaign waged by Abdel Sattar Kassem, professor of political science at al-Najah University in Nablus. His frankness has earned three stretches in Palestinian prisons. He has also been wounded in an unexplained shooting.

Palestinians are coming to realise, he said, that far from being ignorant of the dirty dealings of his underlings, Mr Arafat stands atop the pyramid of corruption.

For senior officials in his Fatah organisation, bodyguards, cars, houses, free overseas medical aid and education for their children come with the job. Sons, daughters, nephews and nieces land comfortable jobs in the authority almost regardless of qualifications or talents.

Donors who have flooded the West Bank and Gaza with money have found keeping tabs on it difficult. A year-long investigation by the European Union fraud squad into allegations that huge sums have been siphoned off from aid donations reached no definite conclusion.

"Its been going on for 30 years," Dr Kassem said. "Orchestrated by Yasser Arafat, first inside the PLO, then the PA. There can be no reforms as long as Arafat is there."

That is not the view of a small but vociferous group in the Palestinian Legislative Council that has been putting unprecedented pressure on the 75-year-old president to abandon his secretive and patriarchal style and accept democratic processes. A PLC committee recently exposed a multi-million dollar scam that staggered even the most cynical Palestinians. Maher al Masri, the economy minister, was accused of helping seven leading businessmen to channel cheap Egyptian cement illicitly to an Israel construction firm.

The cement was for use in Israel's 450-mile security barrier, a project hated by Palestinians and which the leadership routinely condemns. Critics say it is unlikely that Mr Arafat was unaware of the scheme.

He is also being harried to make good a long-standing promise to reorganise into three branches the dozen anarchic organisations charged with state security. Elements of the security forces, particularly in the Gaza Strip, are outside civil control and follow their own interests. A PLC report recently accused them of "intimidating the citizenry, creating chaos and harming the supreme interests of the Palestinian people".

Mr Arafat last month showed a rare flicker of repentance when he declared: "We have to be brave enough to admit making mistakes." But he still fervently maintains his grip on powers such as his control of the prosecutor's office, a key post in the battle against corruption.

He and the old guard have withstood pressure for change by emphasising the primacy of resistance. Demands for good governance were presented as being tantamount to disloyalty. But the war is going nowhere and reform has become a mantra across the political spectrum.

The prospect of an Israeli withdrawal from Gaza, as planned by Ariel Sharon, the prime minister, means that in theory one battlefront will fall quiet, leaving Gazans to manage their internal affairs.

One theme unites those who aspire to power: the need for honest rule. Cynics note that the leading advocate of clean hands government is Mohammed Dahlan, the former head of preventative security in Gaza.

Last week he was on Arab television trying to explain the whereabouts of millions of pounds donated by the EU.

Hanan Ashrawi, a PLC member believes that the old gang has been chastened by the energy and seriousness of the reformers. "There is a certain awareness among public officials that they are being watched and that they are accountable to the public," she said.

Local elections, which should follow a voter registration exercise which starts today, would erode Mr Arafat's power to appoint mayors and councils and would create momentum for a national poll.

But to many it seems the reforms, if they succeed, will only be sorting out a mess that should never have developed.

Hopes of a more reasonable and less corrupt leadership for the Israelis to negotiate with.

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