Arafat displays contempt for first elected assembly

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The first democratically elected assembly in Palestinian history has been rebuffed and humiliated by Yasser Arafat, who has made it clear that its authority comes second to that of the Palestinian security services.

Such is Mr Arafat's determination not to share power that he has claimed he has the right to nominate his successor in the event of his death.

Members of the Legislative Council, elected in January in a poll which was seen as an important step towards Palestinian self-determination, have discovered that Mr Arafat does not even accept their right of assembly.

Six council members were banned earlier this week from holding a meeting to protest against the torturing to death of a man in Nablus by Palestinian police, and the shooting of another Palestinian in nearby Tulkarm.

"They stopped us meeting in the local chamber of commerce," says Husam Khader, a council member from Nablus.

"We went to a restaurant nearby. When we were inside, the security police telephoned twice to say that if the meeting did not end they would attack us and smash up the place."

Haidar Abdul-Shafi, a Palestinian leader from Gaza, who was also in the restaurant, says the order "must have come from Arafat".

Many Palestinians are deeply disappointed by the way in which the 88- member council has been marginalised.

Dr Khalil Shikaki, a political scientist at the Centre for Palestine Research and Studies in Nablus, says: "Our security services increasingly dominate every aspect of our political life. The only antidote to this is more democracy." However, few Palestinians, on or off the council, believe that Mr Arafat has any intention of moderating his autocratic style. Attending a meeting yesterday of the council in Ramallah, north of Jerusalem, Hanan Ashrawi, the Palestinian human rights advocate, said: "The council is working in terms of maintaining a political discourse, a critical appraisal of what is going on, and upholding the rule of law."

She described it as hypocritical for Israel and the United States to criticise the lack of Palestinian human rights while at the same time insisting on a permanent security clampdown in order to prevent suicide bombers.

Ordinary Palestinians sense the council is impotent. In the corridor outside the council chamber, nobody was approaching councillors to express their grievances. "They used to come," one observer said. "But now they know it is useless." An elderly village Mukhtar (leader) leaving the building turned out to be on a visit to officials of the Ministry of Education, which also has offices there. He said: "My village needs economic help," which the council cannot give, and held up a fax he had sent to Mr Arafat saying his village supported his "wise leadership".

Mr Arafat seems to see the council, whose election was carefully monitored by the European Union and the former US president, Jimmy Carter, as largely decorative. He has ignored 10 decisions to free detainees. Once, in the chamber, he expressed astonishment that a woman should petition the council "when my office could deal with the matter in five minutes." On another occasion, a discussion of the basic Palestinian law had to be postponed because Mr Arafat was attending a meeting in Cameroon.

Ms Ashrawi says the council keeps a form of debate alive. Saleh al-Taamari, a council member from Bethlehem, says: "It is not easy. We have to fight." He admits the Palestinian media seldom covers dissent against Mr Arafat. The editor of al-Bilad, a Palestinian newspaper, who dared to reprint an article from Newsweek about corruption in the Palestinian leadership, was immediately picked up by the security police.

Mr Arafat's model of how the Palestinian enclaves ought to be governed seems to be Syria, with powerful security forces and his Fatah organisation playing the role of the Ba'ath party.

In such a system a democratic assembly has little role. Mr Arafat's defenders say he relies on his security apparatus because his ability to stop more suicide bombings is his one card in dealing with Israel and the US. His critics say that when he ruled part of Lebanon in the late 1970s and early 1980s his use of power was equally authoritarian and arbitrary.