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Arafat's 'despotic' rule splits Palestinian elite

Intellectuals are accused of remaining silent as human rights abuses get worse, Eric Silver reports
An attack on Yasser Arafat by Edward Said, the Palestinian American scholar, whose books have been seized from shops in the West Bank and Gaza, has alerted Western intellectuals to what the average Palestinian has known for some time - Mr Arafat and his administration are increasingly authoritarian and intolerant of opposition.

Last week Professor Said, of Columbia University, New York, who is one of the leading critics of the Oslo peace accords, denounced Mr Arafat's "increasingly dictatorial, profoundly corrupt and visionless attempt to rule his people". He was particularly contemptuous of the failure of Palestinian intellectuals to condemn offences against human rights and freedom of expression.

Yesterday Hanan Ashrawi, minister for higher education in the Palestinian Authority and a friend and former student of Professor Said, said it was an "outrage" that Palestinian police had seized his books. But she rejected his contention that Palestinian intellectuals in Mr Arafat's administration are seduced by "the trappings of a car and portable phone" and are committing "an extraordinary trahison des clercs".

"Edward speaks out with the full force of conviction, and he deserves to be heard," said Dr Ashrawi, a former Palestinian peace negotiator. "Seizing his books is not something we will accept or condone. There is no way we will allow the security system to impose their own standards and limits on our freedom of thought."

Dr Ashrawi insisted, however, that her decision to "roll up my sleeves and see if I can change things from within" was as legitimate as Professor Said's to fight from without. Though sharing his dismay at the way their society is evolving, she said: "I live here. I cannot afford the luxury of detached distancing. I deal with a very imperfect reality, which demands engagement. The important thing is to view oneself as an instrument of change and try to make a difference. The intellectuals can be not just the antenna of a nation but part of the force for addressing and redressing grievances."

Khader Shkirat, a West Bank human rights lawyer, is taking Mr Arafat's secret police to court for confiscating 70 copies of the Arabic edition of Professor Said's Oslo - Peace Without Land. Mr Shkirat, of the Palestinian Society for the Protection of Human Rights, has registered a complaint with the public prosecutor on behalf of Samih Hammudi, the Ramallah bookseller raided by the police. On past performance, he expects no response.

"We'll wait a few days," he said yesterday, "then we'll take the intelligence service to court. The books were confiscated with no explanation, order or official papers. This is a clear breach of Palestinian law."

Mr Arafat's credibility is crumbling as the peace process stagnates, the economy founders, and his multiple security services wield an iron fist. At least nine prisoners have died under interrogation since Mr Arafat set up in Gaza two years ago. The most recent, earlier this month, was a 66-year-old father of 10, beaten to death after being arrested during a quarrel between two families.

Security men detain and routinely torture dozens of "dissidents" without charge or trial. They open fire on protesters; one man was shot dead in the West Bank town of Tulkarm this month when demonstrators demanded the release of Hamas prisoners. They intimidate or ignore independent judges.

Last Sunday the Palestinian High Court ordered the immediate release of 10 students from Bir Zeit University, where Dr Ashrawi used to teach English literature. They had been in prison since March, when they were picked up in the wake of the Islamist suicide bombings in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. A week later, they are still behind bars.

On 12 August Mohammed Dahman, a Gaza human rights activist, was arrested after announcing that a Palestinian prisoner had died under interrogation. The Palestinian Authority claimed the man committed suicide, and charged Mr Dahman with fabricating the story. He is the third human rights campaigner to be arrested in Gaza. It is rumoured that he is to be arraigned before a secretive state security court.

"This is of particular concern," wrote the New York-based Human Rights Watch in a letter to Mr Arafat, "because the estimated 45 trials that have taken place since the court's establishment in February 1995 have violated even the most basic of internationally guaranteed rights to due process.

"Trials are generally held at night, are completely closed and often only last a matter of minutes. Palestinian Authority officials have refused to provide charge sheets or transcripts of these summary proceedings. Defendants are not given sufficient notice of the charges against them and are not represented by lawyers of their choosing."

The two million Palestinians of the West Bank and Gaza had hoped for something better after 27 years of Israeli oppression. Increasingly, they are venting their frustration on Mr Arafat.

"The police's mentality was formed in an Arab context, where there was no respect for human rights and the rule of law," argued Ghassan Khatib, an East Jerusalem commentator. "They came from Iraq, Syria and Jordan. They are the most loyal of Arafat's men. They have no other source of power."

How serious, then, is the danger to the Arafat regime? "His public stand is slowly deteriorating," Mr Khatib estimated, "but he still maintains a majority and enough strength to pull through. The public are not thinking of going beyond Arafat at this stage but are trying to convince him to be more careful with appointments and to be tougher with the security services. The only organised power in the opposition is Hamas, but they see that the alternative to Arafat is not Hamas but Israeli occupation."

And the intellectuals, pace Professor Said, are edging out of their shells. "We are seeing the creation of a police state," complained Khalil Shikaki, a Nablus political scientist and pollster. "The record on human rights is despicable. You can blame the Israelis for a lot, but the man in the street knows he can't blame them for Palestinian human rights abuses."