Fatah faithful turn against their leader: Arafat's most loyal backers are now questioning his authority, writes Sarah Helm in Jerusalem

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The Independent Online
'I WANT to kill him,' said the teenage strone-thrower in Shofat refugee camp yesterday when asked what he thought of Yasser Arafat, chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organisation. The youth said he was still a supporter of Fatah - Mr Arafat's faction in the PLO - but, as for Mr Arafat himself: 'He is finished.'

Up on the Mount of Olives, in East Jerusalem, in Shofat Refugee Camp, in Hebron, and throughout the West Bank and Gaza yesterday the air was again thick with tear-gas, and the were roads blocked by smouldering barricades.

The emotional backlash following the Hebron massacre continues to surge in waves of violence throughout the West Bank and Gaza. While the protests and stones are directed at Israeli soldiers, back in force to reassert control, much of the anger is directed at Mr Arafat. 'Fatah must go on, but without Abu Amar (Mr Arafat's nom de guerre). If he comes here he will die. He is not our leader any more,' said Khaled, 18, manning a barricade on the normally tranquil Mount of Olives, as Israeli soldiers took aim from the roofs.

Not only are the youths on the street in open rebellion against the PLO leader. While Israel pleads with the PLO to return to the peace talks, many delegates from the occupied territories were yesterday under curfew - unable to leave their homes, never mind travel to Washington to negotiate. With the streets outside as volatile as they have been since the height of the intifada, even these delegates - Mr Arafat's most loyal supporters - are beginning to ask how long his credibility can last.

Before the Hebron massacre, confidence in Mr Arafat's peace deal was already plummeting, as the promised gains of September failed to materialise. Since Hebron, however, Mr Arafat stands accused of being a party to a deal which may have contributed to the disaster. Under the Oslo accords, the PLO agreed with Israel that Jewish settlements should stay in the first phase of peace, and that settlers like Baruch Goldstein, the perpetrator of the massacre, should be able to roam freely with arms among the Palestinians.

If Mr Arafat returns to the negotiations now, without major new concessions from Israel, his dream of walking back to reclaim the West Bank and Gaza will be scotched once and for all. 'He cannot set one foot on the land of Palestine. Nobody wants him here. He knows that,' said Mohammed, a Mount of Olives shopkeeper. Sensing acutely the anger on the streets, the local PLO leadership have stated categorically that they will not return to the talks unless their new terms are agreed by Israel.

These terms include the disarming of settlers, immediate talks on the future of settlements, and international protection for the Palestinians. So far, Yitzhak Rabin, Israel's Prime Minister, has failed to come anywhere near to meeting the terms. Israel's release yesterday of 500 prisoners - due out imminently anyway - was dismissed as meaningless.

Mr Rabin has suggested he may consider a new international presence in the occupied territories - but not a 'force'. And he proposed disarming only a tiny minority of Jewish settlers, while refusing any possibility of discussing the future of settlements. Within the senior Palestinian leadership in the West Bank and Gaza, there is a nervousness now about what the future holds.

There is also a great awareness that they - like Mr Arafat - now have very little credibility left. In his office in East Jerusalem, a short distance from the scene of continuing clashes, Faisal Husseini, the senior PLO figure in the West Bank, said yesterday that without these concessions from Israel, returning to the talks would be 'impossible'. 'The people on the street are angry. Arafat is finished - all the PLO leadership is finished - if we do not acknowledge the reality that we can only return to the talks on these conditions,' he said.

Inevitably the massacre of Muslims in a mosque has strengthened the hand of Hamas, the Islamic Resistance Movement, and other groups that opposed Mr Arafat's peace deal from the start. Many Fatah supporters are reported to be joining the opposition.

More worrying for Mr Arafat is the evidence of a split within Fatah at the grass roots. For the first time, Fatah members speak about staying loyal to the organisation - but removing its leader. 'Fatah is about ideas, not about people. Fatah does not need one man to survive,' said a Fatah official in the West Bank.

Emotionally, it is hard for them. For years they have paid homage to Abu Amar, the unifier of the Palestinian people and the symbol of liberation. But these Fatah loyalists are beginning to cut loose from Mr Arafat's bonds and to look for other symbols. Already, according to Fatah officials, sections of the organisation are moving 'underground' again.

So fragile and so slight are the foundations of the new 'Palestinian entity' begun in September that it will not take much to knock them down. A few bare offices here, a few unpaid officials there, are all that will disappear, along with tattered Palestinian flags and dog-eared posters of Mr Arafat.

Israeli soldiers shot dead a Jewish settler and wounded his wife by mistake in the occupied West Bank yesterday, Reuter reports.