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Young Palestinians, after rule of Arafat, hope for rule of law

By Ilene R. PrusherCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / November 16, 2004


They fly his banner, wear his face on their T-shirts, and utter solemn prayers with upturned hands at his graveside.

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But many young Palestinians view the death of Yasser Arafat as a time for looking forward, not just as a time of mourning. While Mr. Arafat was seen as the champion of Palestinian nationalism, he also came to represent corruption and dashed hopes for democracy. His passing has many Palestinians - especially young adults - expecting a better caliber of leadership.

"It's not really just a question of age or generation," says Jaber Asfour, a senior Fatah leader in the West Bank. "What we disagree with is the method of government in which personality supersedes the law and isn't beholden to it. If someone is 100 years old but respects the law, fine. If someone is 30 but doesn't, we don't want that person as our new leader." But the bottom line, he says, is that "the young guards want to have a bigger share of the cake."

That's the view of those in the loosely defined movement of Palestinians often referred to as "the reformers." These include a swath of activists, from vocal political figures in their 30s and 40s, sometimes dubbed the "young guard" of Fatah, the party Arafat established in the Palestine Liberation Organization, to those who are defined by outlook more than age.

The sense of awe and respect many of them had for Arafat as a revolutionary leader has in recent years been laced with frustration about fiscal malfeasance and questions over the fruitfulness of the intifada launched in September 2000.

In the city's Al Manara Square, a place where young men often congregate after marches and other political events, college students spend hours talking - as if waiting for whatever will happen next.

"After Arafat, we are free. We can impose on the next Palestinian leader what we want, rather than having it imposed on us," says Sattam Mubarak, a political science student at Bir Zeit University, on this city's outskirts. The man in his early 20s looks much like his collegiate counterparts in the West - and appears to think much like them. "We know that Israelis have internal freedom in their society, to move around as they wish and say what they like, and we want those freedoms, too."

But what many of the younger leaders haven't done yet is latch onto a new leader to succeed Arafat.Many Palestinian officials in Fatah have been lukewarm in their embrace of Mahmoud Abbas, known as Abu Mazen, as the next leader, which Mr. Asfour says is due to their interest in the process. Elections have been set for January 9.

"For us, the most important thing is to get the young generation to respect the process," Asfour says. "We want to see [the new leader] exercise his authority through constitution law and not through personal power."

Asfour, a locally influential figure in Fatah, is one of many young leaders who are unlikely to attract the kind of following commanded by Marwan Barghouti, whom young Palestinians cite as their top choice as a future president. Barghouti is in an Israeli prison, convicted of three counts of murder in a trial that Palestinians said was political rather than criminal.