A thorn in the side of 'mafia' in Palestine

A Week In The Life HUSAM KHADER IN NABLUS, PALESTINE
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The Independent Online
HUSAM KHADER, a political militant from Balata refugee camp on the outskirts of the West Bank town of Nablus, is jubilant because he has just organised a successful strike. Arrested 23 times by Israel during the Palestinian intifada, he is now leading 20,000 people from Balata against the local representatives of the Palestinian Authority.

Mr Khader, 36, a lively man with a quick smile, modest but confident, does not like the rulers of this Palestinian enclave, surrounded by Israeli- controlled territory.

"They are a mafia," he says. "They want to use the present situation to get rich. They hear only the symphony of dollars."

A member of the Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC), Mr Khader explains that the strike was sparked off by the decision of Ghassan Shaka, mayor of Nablus, to double the price of electricity and water for the impoverished refugees in Balata. Mr Khader sees that as a symbol of the greed and corruption of the officials of the Palestinian Authority.

His two small daughters rush in and out of his office at the entrance to Balata as he outlines the events of the week leading up to the strike.

Other Palestinian politicians mutter about corruption in Yasser Arafat's Palestinian Authority. But few do anything about it. Mr Khader is also different from other critics in that he has clear popular support.People in Balata obviously think he can help.

The local authority does not cut much ice in the camp. "We haven't allowed them to cut anybody's electricity for nine months," he says. "They even came to my office, but I sent a message to the mayor, saying: 'Don't you dare'."

Mr Khader details the events that led up to the strike:

On Monday, he holds a meeting of "the Committee for the Defence of Palestinian Refugees Rights". "We heard a senior official of the Palestinian Authority was coming to Balata to open a water project on Saturday. We decided to hold a strike and demonstration to greet him," he says.

"People are paying one-third of their salaries for electricity and water. The municipality buys it from Israel, doubles the price and sells it to us.

"It is even demanding back payment for the electricity bills we refused to pay the Israelis during the intifada. We spoke to Arafat who promised not to take money from the refugee camps, but he did nothing.

"The mayor even sent a letter to the family of Saad Sael, a Palestinian martyr killed in the siege of Beirut in 1983, saying he would cut off their electricity unless they pay the money [the equivalent of pounds 24] in 15 days. Part of the money goes to Arafat."

That evening Mr Khader addresses a meeting of 300 students from al-Najaa university. He says: "It was shameful for me. I had to duck a lot of questions about how al- Sharif died."

Mohiedin al-Sharif was the bombmaker the Palestinian Authority (PA) says was killed by fellow members of Hamas. Critics say he died at the hands of the authority or the Israelis.

Husam Khader and his committee are making posters and slogans for their strike.

It is going to be the first in Nablus since the Israelis departed in 1995. The local committee of Fatah, Mr Arafat's organisation, in Balata has a slogan: "We shall resist the [Israeli] occupation as if there is no [Palestinian] Authority; And we shall fight against the corruption of the Authority as if there was no occupation."

Mr Khader thinks this is brave of them. He refused to join the official list for Fatah in the 1995 elections, and was elected as an independent Fatah candidate.

A stream of people comes to Mr Khader's office for help.

One woman needs to pay for her daughter's eye operation. She has talked to Jibril Rajoub, head of preventive security on the West Bank. He will talk to Mr Arafat. Mr Khader laughs when asked if such a detail as this had to be decided by the Palestinian leader. He lifts up a glass of water, saying: "You don't even drink from this without his permission," he says.

In the evening Mr Khader addresses a woman's social club in Nablus. They are well-educated and middle class. He speaks of the bad relationship between the Palestinian Authority and the Palestine Legislative Council.

"I think the PA asks God every night to let it wake up one day without the PLC." Asked why the authority is so authoritarian, he replies: "They got used to leading the PLO without sharing authority."

He himself spent three years in exile in Tunis with Mr Arafat. He supports a motion of no-confidence in the PLC on 15 June against the Palestinian government. In Nablus, he says, the local government is spending the money it raises in hotels and at receptions.

Thursday dawns and Mr Khader is leading a demonstration to the borders of Israel at Tulkarm to commemorate 50 years since al-Nabka, the Catastrophe, as the Palestinians call the loss of their homes in what is now Israel.

The people of Balata, a half square kilometre of ramshackle concrete houses separated by narrow alleys, come originally from 60 villages and towns between Jaffa and Lod. After 1948 they were not allowed to return.

Husam asks his four-year-old daughter Amira where she comes from. She says: "I live in Balata, but I come from Jaffa."

A middle-aged woman in a pink dress comes to see him. She shows her refugee identity card, which has the names of 12 family members on it. Her husband has died and somehow she is no longer on the right list to get support from United Nations Relief and Works Agency (Unwra). Husam makes a phone call to the local Unwra director to explain her problem.

Husam Khader goes to the mosque in Balata on Friday and addresses 1,000 people, calling on them to support the strike. Given that half the 6,000 people who could work in the camp are unemployed, the strike will most obviously affect the shopkeepers.

He is somewhat contemptuous of people in Nablus itself, who are also badly hit by the high price of electricity and water, but do nothing. "There are no men in Nablus," he says. Then he looks embarrassed and softens the phrase.

At 10am on Saturday he goes to the market place with other committee members. The shopkeepers say they are waiting to close at 11am, as instructed by the strike committee. When the hour comes the strike is total.

The visiting dignitaries are met by a large demonstration. Mr Khader is pleased. "Would anybody deny water and electricity to people as poor as this, unless they were at war with them?" he asks.

The price rises remain in place. Now he plans to cut the main road to Jerusalem.

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