Anger spills over after anti-Arafat campaigner

OUTRAGE AND division over Yasser Arafat's crackdown on a group of prominent Palestinians who signed a leaflet which - for the first time - publicly blamed him for "opening the door" to corruption, has escalated sharply after one of the signatories was shot.

Mo'awya al-Masri, a member of the Palestinian Legislative Council, vowed yesterday to continue his anti-corruption campaign despite being shot in the foot during a mysterious attack by three masked men in the West Bank town of Nablus.

The attack, on Wednesday evening, came amid a growing furore within the ranks of leading Palestinians which began when 11 people were detained without charge on the orders of Mr Arafat for signing a highly critical leaflet. Three were later released.

The document, which bore the names of 20 prominent people - 11 academics and professionals and nine law-makers - accused Mr Arafat of opening the door to widespread corruption. There have long been allegations that hundreds of millions of dollars have gone unaccounted for within the Palestinian Authority, but this was the first direct charge against the Palestinian leader.

The document also complained bitterly about the failure of the 1993 Oslo Accords to produce positive results over key issues, such as securing a capital in east Jerusalem, the right of return for millions of refugees and stopping continued building of Israeli settlements on the West Bank.

The document called on Palestinians to "ring the bells of danger against the corrupt, unjust and manipulative policies" of the Palestinian Authority. "The homeland is being sold," it said, "We must stand together to stop this corruption." Mr Arafat's staff said it amounted to incitement.

Mr Arafat, and the Palestinian Authority which he leads, have repeatedly stifled internal criticism, partly because Mr Arafat is eager to enter final status negotiations with Israel with a united front, albeit enforced - a tactic which brings with it the risk that he will sign up to a deal which proves unacceptable to Palestinian public opinion and will eventually fall apart. But his latest display of ruthless autocracy appears to have backfired.

Indignation among Palestinians and international human rights groups was sufficiently intense for Mr Arafat's party, Fatah, to organise a noisy and well-publicised march through Ramallah on Wednesday in a show of support for the "president".

Although the attack on Mr al-Masri was immediately denounced by a senior Arafat aide, suspicions abound that it was an attempt by the security services - of which there are no fewer than nine organisations - to silence the signatories. For once, no one among the Palestinian groups appeared to be blaming the Israelis for mischief-making.

Unlike the eight still being detained last night, Mr al-Masri was one of nine Palestinian parliamentarians who signed the leaflet but have immunity from prosecution. He was attacked by armed men after returning from a meeting of the Palestinian Legislative Council at which he, and the eight other lawmakers, refused to denounce the offending document. Far from receiving support from their fellow parliamentarians, the council - to the horror of civil rights activists - censured the signatories, and voted to set up a group to monitor members' behaviour in future.

Speaking from hospital in Nablus yesterday, Mr al-Masri said the attack - which he considers a failed assassination attempt - "affirms the truth of the leaflet". He told reporters: "I am now more determined than ever to fight corruption. If there was law and order, this would not have happened ... Over the past few years, we have been shouting about corruption but hearing only our own echoes."

The shooting drew an alarmed reaction from the Palestinian Human Rights Monitoring Group, which said it now "fears for the lives of Palestinians citizens who dare to speak freely on political issues concerning the Palestinian Authority." A statement is also circulating, bearing the signatures of more than 35 Palestinians from the diaspora, many of them prominent figures, which condemned the arrests as a "totally unjustifiable attack on the freedom of expression".

"While carrying out these arrests, the Palestinian Authority is using the mantle of nationalism and the language of unity to stifle legitimate and necessary criticism and debate," it said. "Such repressive measures only harm the Palestinian people, and help their enemies, who point to the lack of democracy as evidence that Palestinians are incapable of governing themselves, and to the abuse of human rights by the Authority as an excuse for their own abuses." It carefully avoided naming Mr Arafat.