Palestinian turmoil over Gaza

Outspoken Arafat critic Nabil Amr was shot and wounded Tuesday night.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Nabil Amr went home for dinner Tuesday after finishing a television interview in which he was critical of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. After dinner, a gunman appeared on his open balcony and pumped out seven bullets, shooting him twice in the leg.

The shooting of Mr. Amr - a prominent former Palestinian cabinet minister trying to form his own political party - is a brutal indication, say analysts, that divisions over who will control the Palestinian Territories are turning more violent. Amr has questioned Mr. Arafat's judgment by urging cooperation with Israel's disengagement plan.

Differences over how to deal with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's stated intention to withdraw from the Gaza Strip and small settlements in the West Bank is providing the spark for an unparalleled flare-up in violence inside Fatah, Arafat's mainstream faction of the Palestine Liberation Organization. The shooting also raises fears that the Palestinian Territories are slipping into deeper disorder.

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In addition to vocalizing his disenchantment with Arafat's leadership, Amr - who served as the Minister of Information under Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) - was known here to be trying to corral disillusioned Fatah members into starting a new political party.

"Nabil Amr wanted to form another party, a party of giving in and saying, 'we don't have another choice.' But they [the assailants] were mad over his statements, not his attempts to form a new party," says Hani Masri, a columnist at the Al Ayyam newspaper and an official in the PA's Ministry of Information. Masri, who condemned the attack, says he does not know precisely who "they" are, but says that they might have taken the initiative to do what they believed Arafat would have wanted.

"What Nabil Amir has been saying is we have to commit ourselves to what it says in the roadmap," the US-drafted guidelines for restarting the peace process, "regardless of what Israel does. It's implicitly putting the burden on Arafat, saying we could be doing more to end the conflict."

Amr's oldest son, Tarek, had just gone upstairs to bed late Tuesday night when he heard shots. "I ran down and saw my father covered in blood," says Tarek Amr, as he waited for news of his father at Sheikh Zaid Hospital Wednesday. "I carried him to the car and brought him to the hospital." He would give only one word for the current state of affairs inside the Palestinian Authority: "misery."

Teary-eyed relatives and friends stood outside the emergency room throughout the morning, as important Palestinian figures filtered in and out to check on Amr's health. Doctors said the bullets had shattered his leg so badly and had caused so much blood loss that he would need more serious care, and sent him to a hospital in neighboring Jordan for further treatment.

The crisis in the Palestinian Authority began last Friday with the kidnapping of Gaza police chief Ghazi Jabali by members of the Al Aqsa Marty's Brigades, a militant offshoot of Arafat's Fatah. Since then, Jabali was replaced by Arafat's cousin, an appointment then rejected by armed groups in Gaza. The Palestinian Prime Minister, Ahmed Qureia, or Abu Alaa, tendered his resignation in protest, but Tuesday agreed to stay on for the time being - part of an increasingly Byzantine power play around Arafat's headquarters.

By some estimates, part of the tensions stem from whether the Palestinian Authority should recognize and be cooperative with the expected Israeli withdrawals, or whether to reject the moves for being unilateral and falling too far short of expectations for ending occupation.

"Some groups believe there should be Palestinian cooperation with the disengagement plan, even if there is no Palestinian partner, while other camp believes it is completely dangerous to do that because it's off the road map," Masri says. While Gaza-based Dahlan, Arafat's former security chief, would have much to gain in an Israeli withdrawal from the Mediterranean strip, Arafat has much to lose.

Around the corner from the hospital where Amr was rolled away on a gurney for transport to Amman, Palestinian Legislative Council members met amid a grim atmosphere. When asked how he was, Hassan Khreisheh, the head of the council's anticorruption committee, patted his chest. "Good. No bullets in me yet."

He would have liked to see protests against the violence. "Where is the silent majority? They should be lifting their voices against this incident," he says. "This is a conflict for power. But our battle is against the Israelis, not against ourselves."

Salah Tamari, a Palestinian Council Member from Bethlehem, says the shooting was an attempt to intimidate all critics of the authority. "It's obvious they want to silence anyone who would speak out," says Mr. Tamari. "But we are not going to be replaced by Dahlan instead of elections." Municipal elections in Palestinian cities are planned for this fall, but there is debate whether they should take place in such an atmosphere of uncertainty.

Another candid critic of Arafat, legislator Kadoura Fares, is concerned that Amr's shooting may not be the last of the attacks on high-profile political figures.

"It's his luck, getting shot. But many others are a candidate for that," Fares says. "It's clear it's an attempt to expand the chain of incidents to the West Bank. The corrupt ones are doing this to quiet everyone."

In that, said Amr, the attackers failed. In a statement provided from his hospital bed, he called for calm. "If the reason behind this attempt is to silence me, let everyone know I always believe in what I say. I wish for internal Palestinian harmony, in order to protect the Palestinian people and the Palestinian dream."

President Arafat has ordered an investigation into the shooting.

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