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

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

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

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."

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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.

Israel's interior minister, Avraham Poraz, has raised a storm over the issue by suggesting at a cabinet meeting that Barghouti could be released "under certain circumstances." What those circumstances might be is unclear. Barghouti, in his early 40s, does not look likely to emerge from prison as a Nelson Mandela-style figure. But others who are from the same generation of early '90s Palestinian activism are beginning to emerge as a more vocal and assertive cadre.

"Mostly, people are looking forward to seeing a society built on the rule of law," says Dallal Salameh, a young woman from Nablus who is a member of the Palestinian Legislative Council. "People are thirsty for it."

That sentiment became all the more palpable over the weekend when Abbas narrowly escaped a gunfight that erupted in Gaza late Sunday outside an official mourning tent for Arafat's death. Palestinian officials denied initial reports that it was an assassination attempt. Abbas blamed the shooting on "previous chaos" in Gaza, referring to intraparty disputes that erupted this past summer.

At that time, militant offshoots of Fatah had grown frustrated with corruption and nepotism in Arafat's regime. Now, it is unclear whether Abbas will be seen as someone who offers a substantial change after Arafat, or whether he will represent more of the same. Some Palestinians lump Abbas in with the elite clique of "outsiders" whom Arafat brought from Tunisia and other countries.

Renewed charges of corruption, and reports that Arafat was hoarding far more cash in his private accounts than previously thought, might complicate Abbas' image as a candidate for election. Moreover, hard-liners and rejectionists believe that Abbas has historically been too keen to make concessions to Israel for peace: he was one of the chief negotiators of the Oslo Accords. Further, he went out on a limb in June 2003 by explicitly calling for a cessation of terror, which angered Palestinians who think that an "all means necessary" approach to the intifada is justifiable.

"We don't deny Abu Mazen was also a struggler," says Khaled Issa, a teacher from Hebron in his mid-30s. "He worked with Arafat since the beginning of the revolution. But Arafat was accepted by Hamas more than Abu Mazen is, and this will create a nightmare for Abu Mazen. Arafat was able to unite the PLO and all sorts of different factions."

Ahmed Ghneim, a leading figure on the Fatah Revolutionary Council and another of those viewed as the party's "young guard," says that Abu Mazen only needs the party to throw its full backing behind him as a candidate. "I'm optimistic, because as long as the Israelis are ready, we are ready to go back to the road map, including a cease-fire." The shots, however, would also have to stop flying at home.

Mr. Mubarak, the university student, says he's hoping for a complete change of leadership, even if it means going through a phase of uncertainty. "Abu Mazen, we tried him before and he failed," he says, as cars carpeted with Arafat's picture stream by him. "We won't have a civil war, but we may have a period of instability in which perhaps many governments will be replaced until we find the right one."

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