Nine held as Arafat orders new crackdown on Palestinian critics

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YASSER ARAFAT ordered the arrest of two more Palestinian intellectuals yesterday as he pressed ahead with one of his harshest crackdowns on high-profile internal critics.

In the last two days, nine people have been detained by Palestinian security forces, or placed under house arrest, after their names appeared on a document accusing the Palestinian Authority of corruption, and levelling responsibility directly at its president, Mr Arafat.

Analysts said yesterday that the document comprised the most public attack ever made against Mr Arafat by mainstream and respected Palestinian figures. "This is significant because of the kind of people arrested, who are credible Palestinian nationalist personalities, and because this is the most explicit criticism levelled at the president himself," said Ghassam Khatib, director of the Jerusalem Media and Communications Centre, which conducts opinion polls.

Twenty people signed the document, including eight members of the Palestinian Legislative Council - who enjoy immunity from arrest - several physicians and political scientists, and two political figures who are seen as heroes of the nationalist cause - Ahmad Qatamesh and Bassam al-Shak'a. Mr Qatamesh became a "cause celebre" when he was held in prison by the Israelis for six years without charge. On Sunday, he was arrested by the Palestinian security police.

The severity of Mr Arafat's reaction is a measure of his autocratic leadership style and personal intolerance to criticism, but also reflects the sensitivity of the issues raised against him. Surveys show that Palestinians overwhelmingly see the authority as corrupt and that unease about the failure of the six-year peace process to produce results is deepening.

The document called on Palestinians to "ring the bells of danger against the corrupt, unjust and manipulative policies" of the authority. "The homeland is being sold," it said. "We must stand together to stop this corruption."

Mr Arafat's advisers sought to justify the crackdown by describing the document as "incitement", an offence that carries a penalty of up to three years imprisonment. One, Nabil Amr, said it was the "first direct reference to the president and this is something that is unacceptable".

But his words did nothing to diminish the fury of Palestinian human rights organisations. The Palestinian Human Rights Monitoring Group, which described the petition as "the beginning of a civil revolution", said the authority "will try everything to prevent any kind of pluralism and democracy".

Sources said that Mr Arafat's officials would now try to pressure the signatories to withdraw their names. If they refuse, the Palestinian leader will have to decide whether to try to persuade the legislature to overturn the immunity enjoyed by the parliamentarians who signed. As this requires a two-thirds majority vote, Mr Arafat will have to be careful; it is a battle he may lose.