Palestinians angered by autocratic Arafat: High-handed style alienates street warriors and intellectuals alike

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IN AN East Jerusalem restaurant on Thursday, a respected Palestinian writer was enjoying a relaxed meal before setting off for Tunis to give Yasser Arafat a piece of his mind.

'You can't issue military commands to a society like you can to a revolutionary movement,' he said. 'The question is, can he change old habits?'

Meanwhile, in the Gaza Strip, a young Palestinian leader who gave up the armed struggle last year to become one of Mr Arafat's political proteges handed in his notice to the PLO chairman, attacking the appointment of 'yes-men'.

In Orient House, once the Jerusalem headquarters for the Palestinian peace delegation, dissent rumbles over Mr Arafat's high-handed approach towards leaders from the occupied territories. 'Who's in and who's out' is the main topic; Palestinians from Gaza complain that Mr Arafat does not understand the problems of living under occupation.

As negotiations to secure Israeli withdrawal from Gaza and Jericho have once again run into the ground, the most ominous opposition to Mr Arafat comes from within Fatah, his own movement inside the PLO. It is not the agreement which is attacked, nor Mr Arafat's stance in the talks, but the chairman's own dictatorial and unpredictable style.

In the past month Hanan Ashrawi, the former Palestinian spokeswoman, has resigned from the PLO to set up a human rights organisation to monitor the new Palestinian authority. Another Palestinian leader, Ziad Abu Ziad, has suspended his membership of the negotiating team in protest at PLO policy. Four Fatah officials have resigned. Last week the armed wing of the movement issued a leaflet criticising the PLO leadership. Today a delegation of disgruntled Palestinians headed by Haidar Abdel Shafi, formerly chief negotiator, flies to Tunis to present Mr Arafat with a petition signed by Palestinians who want to see more democracy in the PLO. In the past, publicly questioning Mr Arafat's supreme authority was akin to questioning the unity of the Palestinian people. Now it is no longer taboo. It remains to be seen, however, whether any of the complaints will be heeded in Tunis.

The discontent has grown most visibly among the PLO political leaders of the occupied territories, who have been effectively left in the cold since the declaration of principles was signed in September. When the Madrid peace process began in 1991, before Israel had recognised the PLO, Mr Arafat plucked figures such as Hanan Ashrawi, Faisal Husseini and Haidar Abdel Shafi from the obscurity of the West Bank and Gaza to negotiate on his behalf. But since Israel decided to talk directly to Mr Arafat, no other Palestinian voice has carried any weight in the negotiations. Mr Arafat's Tunis cronies are now grabbing any spare limelight. The slight is keenly felt among local leaders, though there is no sign yet of any serious attempt to challenge Mr Arafat politically.

Among the young intifada generation of Palestinian leaders, the anger is raw and impatient. They are demanding rewards for their sacrifices and a strong say in the direction of the new Palestinian authority.

Intellectual and professional Palestinians fear the kind of regime Mr Arafat intends to impose. It is as if they have begun to examine their leader's credentials with open eyes for the first time. Many don't like what they see: an autocrat surrounded by cronies left over from the 'revolution'. To these people the peace agreement should herald release from the humiliations of occupation and the establishment of the rule of law, human rights guarantees and democracy. They are alarmed that the deal contains no building blocks for a genuinely democratic state. But these critics are under no illusion that they are being heard.

GAZA CITY - Israeli troops shot and wounded five Palestinians in disturbances yesterday in the occupied Gaza Strip, and beat reporters and photographers covering the incident, AP reports.

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