Palestinians turn fury on Arafat after shootings

War against terrorism: Gaza Strip
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The Independent Online

Yasser Arafat mobilised the full machinery of his security apparatus on Tuesday to stop the Gaza Strip from exploding into internal conflict, detonated by the US-led bombing of Afghanistan and the killing of Palestinian protesters by their own policemen.

Thousands of armed police flooded the streets, and foreign correspondents were banned for the second day from entering the strip, which was simmering with anger after Palestinian police shot dead three demonstrators on Monday, among them a 12-year-old boy. Inside Gaza City, military intelligence agents maintained a vigil outside the main media building.

Mr Arafat has resorted to dictatorial methods to quell the instability in Gaza, which blew open the long-standing rift between his rule – with its many uneasy links with Israel – and the radical Islamic nationalists who command strong support on the streets.

Schools and universities were closed down for the day in one of several signs that Mr Arafat – though legendary for his command of the art of political survival – was badly shaken by the unrest.

His authority had already been challenged by the militants' rejection of his attempts to impose a US-brokered ceasefire in the intifada.

The disturbances were the biggest hiatus in his relations with the Islamic radicals of Hamas and Islamic Jihad and their supporters – who had drawn closer to the PLO mainstream during the uprising – since 1996, when Mr Arafat flung many scores of militants into prison after a spate of suicide bombings in Israel. Both in Gaza and the West Bank, Mr Arafat's security forces struggled hard yesterday to keep the world's press away from anyone uttering support for Osama bin Laden, or giving vent to anti-American sentiments, which are almost universally felt across the occupied territories.

This was partly at the behest of the US and its allies, who want to keep the television footage of Muslims protesting against their attack on Afghanistan to a minimum.

But the clampdown is mostly because the Palestinian leadership wants to avoid images appearing around the world that will make it easy for its foes – especially Israel – to couple them with Mr bin Laden.

But they could not silence the human rights critics, or the family of Abdullah Franji, the 12-year-old boy killed by a police bullet.

"We never thought Palestinian bullets would be directed at us," said Imad Franji, a cousin, "It was barbaric. Most of the people injured were shot in the head. You can go to the hospital and see. The aim was to kill – and it was done to satisfy the US." The boy's relatives issued a formal statement, demanding that his killers be brought to court.

The Palestinian Centre for Human Rights condemned the police for using excessive force to crush Monday's demonstrations, in which three Palestinians were killed by live fire after the police broke up a crowd of students from the Islamic University, who were chanting slogans in solidarity with Afghans and brandishing pictures of Mr bin Laden.

In the aftermath of the bloodshed – which left scores injured – enraged crowds attacked and burnt police stations, started fires and smashed windows. Gun battles broke out between Palestinian resistance fighters and police officers.

The Palestinian police at first blamed the students, for holding an "illegal" protest, then complained that they constituted a traffic hazard, and finally accused masked gunmen of shooting at them.

But the mourners following a funeral procession for one of the victims through the streets of a Gaza refugee camp were in no doubt about whom they held responsible. As they marched they chanted the names of the Gaza police chief, Gazi Jabaly, and Yasser Arafat.

Yesterday, few Palestinian protesters were willing to brave the huge police presence. The streets – filled with mayhem only a day earlier – were calm.

But emotions were running high, not least among the Palestinian journalists and cameramen who witnessed the protests and were beaten by police, detained, and had their equipment destroyed.

But the danger appears greatest for the Palestinian Authority itself. It has moved quickly to gain promises from the powerful Islamist resistance groups, Hamas and Islamic Jihad, that they will do nothing to put "national unity" at risk. Some Hamas leaders played their part by calling on supporters not to challenge the authority of the police, and to return to their homes.

But this is extremely tricky political terrain. The 1.2 million Palestinians who have been trapped by Israel within the tiny coastal strip are even more angry, and more radicalised than ever after a year of conflict. Israel's occupying army is the chief enemy. But the Palestinian Authority – with its record of torture, summary execution, cronyism and corruption – could easily also feel the brunt of their pent-up anger.

On the streets yesterday the people of Gaza were in no doubt that this has only been fuelled by Monday's events. "I'm a worker, not a politician, but I think it's better to shoot Israelis, than to start killing ourselves," said Rami Abu el Khaer, as he stood in a cramped cafe. A baker, who refused to give his name, criticised the police for suppressing the public's views. He made no secret of where his loyalties lie: "Osama bin Laden is fighting for God, and he wants to liberate Palestine. He even said in a statement that the United States will not live in security unless we do."

It is not the view of the leadership, nor of the Palestinian intelligentsia. But there are plenty of ordinary Muslims in Gaza who would agree.

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