Palestinians turn against despotic Arafat: The PLO chief's credibility has nose-dived only weeks after his comeback, writes Sarah Helm in Gaza

THE President is seldom seen by his people. A flash of his chequered keffiyeh might be spotted occasionally as he moves from his office to the car. But a shield of thuggish gunmen usually obscures him from the view of on-lookers, as well as from potential assassins.

Three weeks after his homecoming, Yasser Arafat, chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organisation and self-appointed President of Palestine, might have been expected to be out mobilising people on the streets and listening to the hopes and fears of the Palestinians he promised to lead out of misery. Instead, he seems afraid of the streets. For security reasons, it is a secret where he sleeps.

All that the people of Gaza hear are slogans. What is this 'Peace of the brave,' they are asking. 'We used to hear more about Arafat when he was in Tunis than we do now he is here. He is a local news item,' one Gazan said. Stories circulate of Mr Arafat's erratic behaviour and of his refusal to listen to criticism. This week he sent a a former prisoner to jail for two hours for voicing dissenting views. People see only a half-formed authority, paralysed by inertia and beset by old-style PLO factional struggles. The main activity at Mr Arafat's headquarters is provided by a stream of notables arriving for an 'audience'.

'He is behaving like an Arab potentate', one observer said. Mr Arafat's guards do not encourage interest in the activities of the chairman. 'Mamnou' (forbidden) is a word often on the lips of the men with guns outside the Gaza offices of the Palestine National Authority (PNA).

Although the worst fears of many Palestinians about Mr Arafat have been confirmed, fear prevents most people from speaking out. Privately, their attacks are uncompromising. Most Palestinians do not understand the political confusion around them. They still vent their frustration with economic hardship at Israel, although this cannot last. But among the middle classes, local political leaders, professionals, and academics, despair is spreading. Most dangerously for Mr Arafat, criticism is also heard within his own faction, Fatah. The words used are not just 'anger' and 'disappointment' but 'humiliation' and 'despair.' Many criticised the peace deal, but hoped the PLO could turn it round by building on the opportunity and by providing leadership.

Instead, now that Mr Arafat is in Gaza, he has been revealed as impotent. 'He has become the mukhtar (headman) of Gaza - that is what the Israelis wanted all along,' said Ali Jabarwi, a professor of political science at Bir Zeit University on the West Bank and an expert on the PLO.

Since Mr Arafat arrived back there has been little sign of progress towards establishing a viable authority, and few reasons to believe change will come swiftly. 'He is not giving people a sense that he is doing anything or that he has any ideas,' an international observer said. The 24-member PNA is not complete and its meetings are held in secret. Many 'ministries' are not staffed.

Improvement in the economy is the priority, but the donors say there are no institutions through which to funnel aid money. Ten months after international donors pledged dollars 2.4bn (pounds 1.6bn) in development aid, Mr Arafat refuses the donors's terms for accountability.

Mr Arafat blames the donors and the World Bank, while they accuse him of seeking personal control of the funds for his own political ends, and of doing nothing to raise his own revenues. 'He is aiming to maximise his personal control over the way funds are spent, to build political support for the PLO,' one Western diplomat said. No system is in place to raise taxes. To avert a crisis, emergency aid funding has been arranged to pay for running costs in Palestinian hospitals, schools and other institutions. But the salaries were only guaranteed until the end of last month and Mr Arafat must go back, cap in hand, for more.

Police salaries were cut in half last week. Effectively the authority is being drip-fed by the donors, who demand accountability for the emergency money. Appointments have been made recently to a Palestinian Finance Ministry. But the body set up to oversee the spending of aid, Pecdar, the Palestinian Economic Council for Development and Reconstruction, seems in disarray, and two key figures have been removed. Most new development money is being funded directly through UNRWA, the United Nations refugee body in Gaza, and other independent aid bodies. This has provided a temporary boost to construction.

Israel now allows only 20,000 Palestinian workers to work in Israel, and unemployment is about 60 per cent. Since Mr Arafat arrived, there has been one riot over jobs in Gaza, and next time the workers' anger could be directed at him, not at Israel. Donors warn that if Mr Arafat does not set up accountable insitutions of government soon, the pledges made last year may be withdrawn.

There is also dismay at Mr Arafat's reluctance to hold elections. Polls throughout Gaza and the West Bank were promised before the end of the year. Recently, Mr Arafat has let it be known that only municipal elections will be held, and these are not guaranteed. But he has appointed mayors to three big Palestinian cities, Gaza, Hebron and Nablus, to shore up his authority.

Mr Arafat's security apparatus causes distaste. The role of the men from 'preventative security' has not been explained. They prowl the streets in jeans, toting guns. Many former PLO gunmen have been co-opted into the security forces. But there are signs of growing resentment between the local hired man and their bosses brought in from Tunis.

Three hundred Palestinians are reported to be in jail in Gaza, many suspected of collaboration with Israel. Despite the outcry over the torturing to death of one suspected collaborator in Gaza jail, the demands of rights organisations for international provisions to be observed have been ignored.

Mr Arafat appears oblivious to these concerns. He refuses to see opposition groups, or influential West Bank thinkers, who might raise the problem with him. He has given no important speeches or given interviews with the Palestinian media since he arrived. He has not presented his case to the Israeli public by appearing on Israeli television. 'For us he has disappeared off the map,' one Israeli journalist said.

Secular Palestinian opposition groups are confused about how to respond, and are intimidated. Hamas, the Islamic Resistance Movement, is playing a waiting game, to see how events unfold. The critics say they fear for their lives if they speak out harshly. Many are looking for new ways to voice their fears, and are slowly leaving established factional groups. 'What can we do - return to the armed struggle?' asked one former member of the opposition Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. Not for the first time, Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank are talking about a crisis of leadership. But this time Mr Arafat is living among his critics.

One of Mr Arafat's most loyal intifada fighters said: 'Arafat has shown us now he cannot change. He cannot listen. What will happen, we will have to wait and see. But he is finished.'

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