Many Palestinians Rethinking Violence
By Karin Laub
Associated Press Writer
Friday, December 6, 2002; 2:36 PM
RAMALLAH, West Bank –– After more than two years of silence, a slowly swelling chorus of Palestinian leaders and opinion-makers says taking up arms against Israel was a mistake and must stop.
The latest voice is that of Jibril Rajoub, once the most powerful security chief in the West Bank. Rajoub now says he warned Yasser Arafat in a strategy session 10 days after the start of the uprising that allowing armed gangs to take over would lead to disaster.
Rajoub's forecast has proven chillingly accurate: 26 months later, nearly 2,000 Palestinians and nearly 700 Israelis are dead, the Palestinian economy is crushed, Israel has reoccupied the West Bank and Israeli travel bans have turned many Palestinian towns into virtual prison camps.
The criticism comes at a time when a possible war with Iraq looms, and as Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon fights for re-election against a dovish political newcomer, Amram Mitzna. But its main spur may be the signs the Palestinian public is tiring of the price it is paying for suicide bombings in Israel, and the hope of winning U.S. support in succeeding the embattled 73-year-old Arafat.
Washington has openly criticized Arafat's Palestinian Authority, blaming it in a document obtained this week by The Associated Press for failing to take steps to stop violence by Palestinian militants.
Palestinian debate about the uprising had been stifled for many reasons – Arafat's autocratic rule, fear of seeming disloyal and a belief that the evils of the Israeli occupation dwarf any Palestinian wrongdoing. Even now, critics of the armed uprising say the initial mass protests in the fall of 2000 were a justifiable expression of Palestinian anger over fruitless negotiations.
The debate now surfacing remains hesitant, and Arafat's aides say he is not about to take on the militant groups most likely to resist a letup in hostilities.
Whether the uprising was a spontaneous one that dragged Arafat along, or whether Arafat orchestrated it, as Israel claims, the Palestinian leader has paid dearly.
Repeated Israeli strikes have reduced his compound in Ramallah, once a symbol of sovereignty, to mounds of debris and barbed wire. The Palestinian leader has been cut down from international statesman to virtual prisoner behind sandbagged windows, afraid to leave lest the Israelis not let him return.
Rajoub's own multimillion-dollar Preventive Security Service headquarters was shelled in April, and Arafat fired him in July after a falling out.
"Some of our people made terrible mistakes, and for this reason we paid a lot," Rajoub said in an interview in his Ramallah home.
Arafat deputy Mahmoud Abbas, widely known as Abu Mazen, had also spoken out against violence, but only in closed meetings.
That changed last month when Abbas' office gave AP and the London-based Al Hayat newspaper a transcript of a tough talk he had with Fatah activists in the Gaza Strip. Excerpts were also published in the Palestinian daily al-Quds.
In an interview with the Qatari newspaper Al-Rayah on Sunday, Abbas repeated that armed attacks have destroyed all the gains since Israel and the PLO signed accords that set up the Palestinian Authority as a government-in-waiting in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
"All the Palestinian Authority's achievements ... came to an end and a lot of institutions were demolished," he said.
Echoing Abbas to varying degrees are Palestinian Parliament Speaker Ahmed Qureia and Sari Nusseibeh, the chief PLO representative in Jerusalem.
Nusseibeh, a university president with little popular support, said the uprising – which erupted when Israel's previous, dovish government was offering the Palestinians independence on most of the lands they seek – lacked direction from the start.
Abdel Razak Yehiyeh, appointed by Arafat in the summer with orders to reform the security services, was soon forced out because he threatened tough action against militias, including the Al Aqsa Martyrs' Brigade affiliated with Arafat's Fatah movement.
A November poll shows how opinion is shifting. Although 90 percent of Palestinians support attacks on Israeli settlers and soldiers in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, 56 percent now support arresting militants to stop attacks inside Israel. As recently as May, 86 percent opposed a crackdown on militias.
The poll, by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research, questioned 1,319 people in November and quoted an error margin of 3 percentage points.
That would place Abbas, Nusseibeh and Yehiyeh outside majority opinion since they support a complete halt to violence.
An Arafat adviser, Ahmed Abdel Rahman, said the Palestinian leader will never go against the public mood in steering the conflict with Israel.
Islam Shahrouri, 28, a portrait photographer in the West Bank city of Nablus, exemplifies many Palestinians' ambivalence about suicide bombings. Initially he rejoices, he said, because he feels the Israelis deserve it. "On the other hand I feel bad because such an attack will draw bad retaliation from the Israelis."
Nablus has been under almost continuous curfew since a major military offensive that followed a spate of suicide bombings in June.
Arafat is not expected to heed the advice of Abbas, a rival and potential successor with whom his relations are tense. But he is also feeling pressure from young uprising leaders, most prominently Marwan Barghouti, 43, whose trial in Tel Aviv has made him the most popular politician after Arafat.
Barghouti, accused of ordering attacks on Israelis, wrote from his prison cell – in response to questions from AP – that the old leadership must step aside "after failing to meet their responsibilities in this decisive battle." Barghouti wrote that the uprising must continue in the West Bank and Gaza, even if peace talks resume, until every Israeli soldier has withdrawn.
Arafat has played a murky role, condemning certain attacks but extolling "holy war" and "martyrdom."
He has attempted to open a dialogue with Islamic militants on ending suicide attacks at recent Egyptian-sponsored talks in Cairo. However, he faced criticism for initially dispatching only a midlevel Fatah official to the talks with Hamas, upgrading representation only after the Egyptian intelligence chief, Omar Suleiman, complained.
In public statements, Hamas says it will continue attacking Israelis. However, those involved in the talks say it would halt bombings in exchange for political representation.
Israel is watching closely for any sign of a leadership change.
"We are seeing the buds of Palestinian recognition that the price they are paying and have paid for their acts of foolishness will become intolerable if they don't hurry to change direction," Ephraim Halevy, former chief of Israel's Mossad spy agency, said last week.
The Palestinians, in turn, are watching the campaign for Israel's Jan. 28 election. Mitzna, who has promised concessions and negotiations without conditions, would seem more appealing to Palestinians than the hard-line Sharon. But Arafat, aware he is hated by most Israelis, is careful to make no endorsements because they would probably be self-defeating.
Rajoub said real soul-searching can only begin after the fighting ends.
"As soon as we have a partner on the Israeli side ... who is ready to make peace," he said, "both sides will regret their mistakes."