Critic of PLO vows to fight on despite arrest

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Bassem Eid, detained for 24 hours by PLO security men, is determined to go on exposing abuses of power by Yasser Arafat's Palestinian National Authority.

The Palestinian human rights researcher, who works for B'tselem, the Israeli human rights watchdog, was released on Wednesday and was resting undeterred yesterday in his east Jerusalem home. Mr Eid will, however, be more careful about going out alone at night - and perhaps be less provocative in his choice of language to criticise wrongdoers.

Despite denials by Palestinian spokesmen, Mr Eid is convinced it was Force 17, Mr Arafat's elite security unit, that arrested him and took him off to Ramallah, 18 miles north of Jerusalem. Al Quds, the biggest- selling Palestinian daily paper, yesterday quoted senior officials confirming that Mr Eid was held for spreading dissension within Palestinian society.

He was finally set free after the intervention of Dr Ahmed Tibi, an Israeli Arab citizen who acts as a personal adviser to Mr Arafat. Dr Tibi apparently had no difficulty locating Mr Eid.

Israeli and Palestinian observers were sceptical about suggestions that Mr Eid's arrest was a rogue operation. They condemned it as part of a pattern of intimidation which Mr Arafat has carried over from the liberation struggle to the threshold of an independent state.

It came 10 days after the detention of an Al Quds editor for relegating a story in praise of the PLO leader to an inside page, and three days after European monitors censured the official Palestinian radio and television for discriminating against opposition candidates in the legislative council elections on 20 January, and the election commissioners for moving the goalposts.

Yizhar Be'er, B'tselem's executive director, said: "They arrested Bassem because he severely criticised the Palestinian authority during the last few months. They arrested him in order to stop him."

Dr Ali Jirbari, a political science professor at Bir-Zeit, the West Bank's oldest university, commented: "We are facing a National Authority that is trying to establish its authority in the best way it knows, and this is the best way it knows. At the same time, it reveals to us a frightening fact, which is the extreme weakness of civil society here.

"All the institutions which should act as a buffer between the individual and the state - unions, voluntary organisations, the media - are extremely weak. They were effective during the Israeli occupation, but apparently when it comes to facing our own authority, things are different."

Dr Jirbari predicted a confrontation. "Democracy won't be handed to the Palestinians by the National Authority without civil struggle," he said. "Society and the state's apparatus are going to face each other. Hopefully Palestinian society will be able to assert itself, but I'm not sure of that."

A veteran Palestinian journalist, who asked not to be named, added: "It is part of a well established policy. While in Lebanon and Tunisia, Mr Arafat tried to get people down by sacking or isolating them. Now the name of the game is to arrest them. The only difference is that it is being done on Palestinian soil under a Palestinian flag. But Mr Arafat may find the West Bank and Gaza Palestinian a hard nut to crack. People are saying, 'If we weren't afraid of Israeli tanks, why should we be afraid of these Palestinian policemen?' "

What is surprising is that Mr Arafat is persisting with these tactics. Human rights violations at this time can only undermine his claim to be a democratically-elected leader enjoying public support for making peace with Israel.

n Israel will release 1,200 Palestinian prisoners next week, including 400 supporters of militant Islamic groups, Palestinian and Israeli officials said, AP reports. Meanwhile the Prime Minister, Shimon Peres, said peace talks with Syria might cause him to call elections earlier than their scheduled date next October.