Arafat now: popular but weaker

The Palestinian chief emerges from an Israeli siege, his regime in ruins.

Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat emerged Thursday from a five-month siege by Israeli forces in his West Bank headquarters here wreathed in smiles and uttering brave words about the future.

But the scenes of destruction he visited on his first day of freedom illustrated how much weaker he is today than when he last breathed fresh air. Arafat is emerging a hero in the Arab world for standing up to Israel. Denounced as a terrorist by Israel, he is a proven survivor in a part of the world where that is no easy feat. But his renewed popularity at home may not give him the strength he needs to assert himself against Israel.

In a chaotic cavalcade of security guards and journalists, Mr. Arafat toured Ramallah in a black Mercedes limousine to witness some of the damage done during the Israeli army's month-long invasion of the West Bank. Behind the physical ruins, however, lies a continued Israeli military presence in the West Bank that will severely limit his authority.

Stepping into bright morning sunlight amid a throng of uniformed bodyguards, the Palestinian leader waved his hand delightedly as he con- ducted an enthusiastic crowd gathered in the courtyard of his compound in their chant of "We will sacrifice our blood and souls for you."

Behind the well-wishers, piles of wrecked cars were heaped among rubble left by the Israeli tanks that had withdrawn from the area under cover of darkness in the early hours of Thursday morning. The courtyard was littered with the remains of the siege: coils of barbed wire lay strung around the area, and bullet casings were thick underfoot in some places.

Surveying damage done to a government building later in the morning, Arafat declared that "they destroyed our efforts to implement what I had signed with my partner Rabin," referring to the Oslo interim peace agreement he reached with former Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1993. "I shall rebuild it all," he promised.

His tour of this city showed him the scale of that task, which a UN official said would cost $300 million dollars "at a very conservative preliminary estimate that might be revised upwards."

At the Education Ministry, for example, where workers were repairing doors and ceilings broken down by Israeli soldiers, Arafat found that the hard drives had been stripped from some 40 computers in the building, and diskettes taken from drawers in every office.

For building department manager Nafez Younis, that meant that "all the details of our projects are missing, all the tender documents, all the contracts. When I entered this office three days ago, not a single document was in its place," but lay scattered around the floor instead.

In the teacher training department, it meant that all the training materials have disappeared, along with all the reports filed by supervisors for the last five years. In the examination section, all records of graduation exam results since 1967 have gone, and in the finance department lies a safe with its hinges blown off, and the equivalent of $7,000 in cash missing.

Palestinian officials say they have encountered similar scenes in several other ministries. Israeli army spokesmen say that the soldiers were seeking records to prove that the Palestinian Authority had been financing suicide bombers and groups that have attacked Israelis in the West Bank.

Palestinians say that the occupying troops also indulged in vandalism and theft, an allegation supported by the empty wallets scattered around the warden's office at the Ramallah prison, where prisoners' personal effects had been stored.

Travel still restricted

Bulldozers had been at work clearing roadblocks around the Palestinian Authority headquarters within minutes of the Israeli withdrawal. Yesterday morning, life was returning to a semblance of normality.

Just a few miles from Ramallah, however, on roads in every direction, Israeli army checkpoints continue to make travel between Palestinian cities on the West Bank, and thus normal life, almost impossible.

"How can I conduct my cases when a witness lives in another town and he cannot come to Ramallah for a trial," asked lawyer Ala al-Bakri as he visited the empty cells of the city jail yesterday. "If a city is closed off by the Israelis it is too difficult for life to return to normal."

Israel is still concerned about suicide bombers. If Palestinians want to do anything that involves travel or trade, such as importing goods from Israel, or taking a patient to a hospital in neighboring Jordan, they must clear their plans with an Israeli military 'coordinating officer' at the outskirts of their town. Though the full-scale occupation of the West Bank is over, Israeli soldiers are still manning roadblocks all over the area. Even as the tanks withdrew from Ramallah, Israeli troops were re-occupying the northern town of Tulkarm on Thursday morning, in search of suspected Palestinian militants.

"Israel intends to stay in charge of security here for a long time," says Palestinian political analyst Ali Jarbawi, who teaches political science at Bir Zeit University near Ramallah. "They will say that until the Palestinians have a security apparatus they can depend on, they will handle it themselves."

It will take many months, if not longer, for the Palestinians to rebuild their security structures, he says. The headquarters of the elite Preventive Security force, built with $10 million of US aid, was almost completely destroyed by Israeli shelling and missile strikes earlier this month.

That would leave Arafat's Palestinian Authority in charge only of administrative business such as education, health and other services. And in the wake of the destruction wrought on the ministries in charge of such work, officials here fear it will cost millions of dollars to restore them to their previous levels.

Arab countries have already pledged money to help in reconstruction, according to the governor of Ramallah, Mustapha Aissa, and Arafat himself is expected to tour the Arab world soon in search of more aid, according to senior Palestinian officials. He would also be discussing Saudi Arabia's plan for a regional peace conference, which he is now free to attend.

Western donors, however, disappointed in the Palestinian leader's inability or unwillingness to rein in attacks on Israel, are likely to put stricter political conditions on their future help, say analysts.

This will further circumscribe Arafat's room for maneuver as he seeks to overcome the loss of territory and authority that the Israeli assault has cost him.

For Palestinian leaders, deep divisions

He remains popular among ordinary Palestinians, not least because Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has publicly called for his removal. But he will need to draw on all his popularity to overcome divisions that have emerged among second-level Palestinian leaders in recent months, as West Bank officials feud with their counterparts from the Gaza Strip, military figures challenge political ones, and moderates wrestle for influence with hard-liners.

Regardless of the outcome of those battles, however, Palestinians see no possibility of a political settlement of their conflict with Israel as long as Mr. Sharon remains in power.

He declared recently that he would countenance no discussion of removing settlements from Palestinian areas – a key element in every peace plan that has ever been drawn up – until the end of his term of office at the end of next year.

"The destruction is not only of the infrastructure," laments Dr. Jarbawi. "It is of our hopes."

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