Palestinians resist Arafat land seizure

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The Independent Online
In two tents pitched on a rocky hilltop the people of Jneid village were gathering to protest against the confiscation of their land. For once their anger was not directed against the Israelis, but the regime of Yasser Arafat, the Palestinian leader, who plans to build his West Bank headquarters on twelve acres they say they have owned for 1,000 years.

Hassan Hussein, the mukhtar or leader of Jneid, a cluster of houses overlooking Nablus, the largest city on the West Bank, said: "We are sure Arafat did not know what was happening. But this is our land and we need it for building." Ziyad Ibrahim, another villager, added: "We struggled for so many years to preserve our land from the Israelis and now this happens."

The fury of the Jneid villagers reflects disillusionment with the Palestinian Authority (PA) of Mr Arafat in Nablus and five other West Bank towns where it took control last December. "The major complaint here is that the security services are out of control, unaccountable and form a state within a state," said Dr Khalil Shikaki at the Centre for Palestine Research and Studies in Nablus.

Events at Jneid bear him out. Villagers say that in the past they fought off attempts by the Jordanian government, while it held the West Bank, and later by Israel after 1967, to take from them their olive groves and grazing land. Last year they heard rumours that Ghassan Shakaa, the mayor of Nablus, was encouraging Mr Arafat, normally based in Gaza, to build his headquarters for the West Bank at Jneid without paying compensation.

"In the morning 12 days ago people from the municipality came with PA soldiers to start work," said Billal, a teacher from Jneid who did not want to give his full name. "We clashed with them for three days." The villagers appealed to the court in Nablus against the loss of their land. They also set up two tents on the land to prevent construction starting.

"On Friday night at 3am somebody came and poured kerosene over our chairs, tables and flags," said Billal. "Then they opened fire with sub-machine- guns at the tents themselves, though there was nobody in them at the time."

The villagers believe Mr Arafat has been misled by his security men. But local Palestinian politicians and intellectuals say that the authoritarianism ultimately stems from Mr Arafat himself. A survey of students at al-Najah university in Nablus showed that two-thirds believe that freedom of speech has been negatively affected by the arrival of the Palestinian Authority.

Dr Shikaki said the basic feature of the quasi-state which Mr Arafat rules in Gaza and in parts of the West Bank is that "it is authoritarian, though not totalitarian". Hussam Qadr, a member of the Legislative Council, said: "The police are judge and jury." Other residents of Nablus say the incoming Palestinian police officers behave like occupation troops, furnishing their offices by removing furniture, for which they never pay, from local shops.

Mr Arafat does not have much choice. Israel and the US have consistently demanded that he "crack down" on Hamas and Islamic Jihad, the fundamentalist guerrillas. It is not surprising that the security arm of the nascent Palestinian state is overdeveloped. The ability to provide security to Israel against suicide bombers is Mr Arafat's only strong card in dealing with Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli Prime Minister.

This excuse does not apply to the confiscation of the lands of a village like Jneid. "Yes to a state of laws, No to taking this land by force," read a banner hanging beside the tent where the villagers were waiting for Mr Arafat. "He is still our leader," said Hassan Hussein. Dr Shikaki believed this tolerance will not last and the friction between the PA and the people of the West Bank "will inevitably lead to an explosion and bloodshed".

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