- The Washington Times - Monday, July 8, 2002

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip President Bush's call for changes in the Palestinian leadership appears to have intensified an internal debate about the performance of Yasser Arafat and emboldened dissenters to air their views in public.
Critics of the move maintained that the American intervention would result in a surge of support for the veteran leader.
But in Gaza yesterday, Palestinians spoke frankly about the corruption and inefficiency of Mr. Arafat's rule. There was also censure of his handling of relations with Israel, which has resulted in it re-establishing an iron grip on the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
The consequences of the Israeli policies could be seen at the Erez checkpoint, where rows of Palestinian workers lined up for hours in the asphalt-melting sun to register for permits that may allow them to work inside Israel again.
Before the second intifada began 21 months ago, about 40,000 crossed each day. Since then, the border has been closed and almost all these jobs have disappeared, along with 100,000 others, as the local economy has run into the ground.
"I haven't made a penny for nearly two years," said Mohammed Attar, 36, who has a wife and eight children to support and who previously worked as a chef inside Israel. "My family tried to help, but they have run out of money."
Mr. Attar blames Israel for closing the border. But he is also angry with the Palestinian Authority, which has paid him the equivalent of $190 in the time he has been jobless. Last week he joined tens of thousands of workers who marched in Gaza to demand work or dole money.
Mr. Attar's view of Mr. Arafat is simple: "If he can solve our problem he is welcome to stay. If not, he should go."
Palestinian intellectuals are bemused by the U.S. enthusiasm for reform. They accuse Washington and Israel of previously ignoring the corruption and repression practiced by the Palestinian Authority and of supporting Mr. Arafat. They also wonder how the Palestinians can rebuild their society with large swathes of the West Bank under Israeli occupation.
They accept, however, that the U.S. call has forced Mr. Arafat into long-overdue elections. "It's come about because of Arafat, and not because they are convinced of the need for reform, that is the sad reality," said Salah Abdel Shafi, a management consultant who may be a candidate. "But it doesn't mean that the process is bad."
There seems to be wide agreement that the system Mr. Arafat planted after his return installing his cronies in positions that they abused must be uprooted. There is also a perception that his handling of the new uprising has been disastrous.
"Arafat has made big mistakes," said one political analyst. "He failed to create a consensus about the objectives of the intifada, and the leadership has kept people in the dark."
Mr. Abdel Shafi believes that the uprising should have ended once it had made the point that "when there's no just solution, there will be no stability." Instead, its continuation and the advent of suicide bombers has put the Palestinians on the defensive, especially after September 11. "We became the Palestinian Taliban," he said.
Some Palestinians resent the idea that they have silently tolerated corruption and repression and point out there has been opposition to Mr. Arafat's rule from the beginning.
The elections offer a mechanism for hope, but not if the Israeli occupation persists, some say.
"If you continue with incursions and assassinations, I guarantee the extremists will win," said Mr. Abdel Shafi.


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