Palestinian Self-Rule Takes Shape as Arafat Balances Friends, Foes

He builds alliances in hopes of peace progress with Israel

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

HIS new ministries lack desks, his people on the West Bank and Gaza are currently shut out of jobs in Israel, and he faces outrage from both Islamic militants and Israelis.

But the self-declared president of the the new Palestinian Authority, Yasser Arafat, has so far been able to retain high popularity among Palestinians, form a government, and build bridges to the Islamic opposition even while periodically conducting massive sweeps, such as Wednesday's arrest of 90 Palestinians in the Gaza Strip.

According to a late January poll, if Palestinian elections were held today, Mr. Arafat would draw 53 percent of the vote, compared with just 15 percent for his closest challenger, Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, spiritual leader of the Islamic Resistance Movement, Hamas.

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Palestinians say that Arafat is maintaining his political grip because he has managed to mobilize a rainbow coalition of Palestinian factions, including some members of Islamic groups, behind his new Palestinian Authority (PA) - the government born out of the September 1993 Israeli-Palestine Liberation Organization agreement on limited Palestinian self-rule.

But if the Palestinian president breaks the consensus by adopting iron-fist policies against the radicals opposed to peace with Israel, he may appease Israel but churn up fierce internal struggles.

``Arafat is balancing on a tight rope,'' observes Ghassan Andoni, a left-leaning West Bank Palestinian intellectual.

But as Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin yesterday rebuffed Arafat's demands to end an Israeli closure on the territories, imposed after last month's bomb attack on a bus stop that killed 21 Israelis, Palestinians are asking themselves how Arafat's hobbled regime can survive.

Arafat knows that the guerrilla attacks on Israelis by Islamic and left-wing radicals are popular with large sections of his uneducated and unemployed public - recent Palestinian polls show that about 46 to 50 percent of the population supports armed attacks.

And Arafat, himself an old guerrilla fighter, is attuning himself to the public mood.

``We are all part of the plan of the martyrs,'' declared Arafat in one televised appearance at a Palestinian rally in January, referring to the conflict with Israel.

Behind the scenes, Arafat has integrated moderate Islamic leaders directly into his administration by appointing them to key positions in the Muslim religious courts throughout the West Bank, Gaza, and Jerusalem.

And despite the lingering trauma of violent clashes between police and Islamic groups at a mosque in Gaza last fall in which 18 Palestinians were killed, Arafat's 15,000-man police force is increasingly perceived in the Palestinian community as a ``national'' force rather than a partisan militia.

While Israeli officials bitterly complain that the Palestinian security service is bloated, underpaid, and ineffective, they also concede that it has indeed foiled a number of recent militant attacks on Israelis.

Internally, the Palestinian security forces are seeking to root out potential insurgents. Two Palestinians have reportedly been tortured to death under interrogation since the Palestinian police assumed control in Gaza and Jericho in July.

Palestinian human rights advocate, Bassen Eid, who works for the Israeli Human Rights organization B'Tselem, says that besides the two deaths, they've received reports of dozens of tortures, as well as countless cases of detentions for days on end without hearings of Palestinians in the jails of the PA.

``There is a limit beyond which you don't criticize - people are afraid of the long arm of the Palestinian security forces,'' says one senior Palestinian official of an international development organization.

HE, like many Palestinian elites, also is dismayed by the nepotism, inefficiency, and lack of professionalism evident in the civil branches of the new Palestinian government.

International development workers, however, say that the quality of Arafat's administration has nonetheless improved over the last six months.

Promised, but long-delayed, international aid has finally begun to flow into the Palestinian economy as Arafat and donors mend their rift over donor demands that Arafat decentralize his administration and adopt international standards of accountability for development projects.

Still, hoped-for economic growth - Arafat's best weapon against Islamic radical opponents of the peace process - remains elusive in view of the prolonged Israeli economic closure and subsequent layoffs of 50,000 or more Palestinian workers.

Odin Knudsen, the World Bank field officer responsible for coordinating much of the international aid effort, notes that some $230 million in Western aid was disbursed in 1994, and 1995 disbursements may cap $700 million.

But the impact of the money is being offset by the loss of millions of dollars to the Palestinian economy that the jobs in Israel previously generated.

Now, make-work programs - from archaeological digs to labor-intensive public works - are likely to absorb much of the international aid that was originally earmarked for more sophisticated infrastructure projects, which would have created fewer immediate jobs for Palestinians, but greater long-term economic rewards, Mr. Knudsen observes.

And the indefinite delay in the withdrawal of Israeli troops from West Bank Arab cities means that the Palestinian administration has a smaller tax base from which to finance its operations than had been originally projected.

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