Arafat's Hard-Line Tactics Test Palestinians' Patience

Throughout this city, black flags flap in the hot summer wind, mourning the torture death of a young activist, Mahmoud Jumayal. But the angry marchers who protested his death last week had neither the Israelis nor radical groups like Hamas to blame.

Mr. Jumayal died in the custody of Yasser Arafat's Palestinian Authority, the seventh person to die in jail since the PA took power two years ago.

Knowing Mr. Arafat has been pushed by Israeli demands to squelch terrorism, Palestinians have tolerated his iron grip.

But recently he has seemed to go too far. And since the election of a new the hard-line Israeli leader, doubt is being cast on Arafat's ability to deliver an independent Palestinian state. Suddenly Palestinian tolerance for his harsh tactics appears to have reached a breaking point.

"I put responsibility for my brother's death on the Palestinian Authority," Jumayal's brother, Amin, says. He sits beneath grisly pinned-up pictures of Jumayal at a hospital, where he was transferred before he died.

"I was arrested 11 times during the Israeli occupation, but by comparison the soldiers treated you with humanity, it was good treatment. In the Authority, they're fascists. They look like Hitler," Amin says bitterly.

At the extreme, Hamas is calling for a rekindling of the intifadah, or uprising, like the one carried out against Israeli occupation forces in the late 1980s and early '90s.

This weekend saw violent Palestinian protests, this time against PA police, who fired tear gas and even live bullets into crowds.

In the West Bank town of Tulkarem, one protester was killed, though the PA says Hamas is responsible.

Arafat is on the defensive. In the Jumayal case, he moved swiftly to get the alleged torturers immediately convicted and sentenced. He also declared Jumayal a martyr, a term most often used here to describe those who died performing militant acts against Israel.

But Amin, his brother, isn't impressed. "All of the people know why they killed my brother, but they are frightened to say because there is no democracy," he says.

Such criticism is rare in the PA, where even prominent rights activists have been arrested. An older mourner tried to hush Amin's harsh words, but went disregarded.

Mahmoud Jumayal was a leader of the Fateh Hawks, a branch of young militants that fought Israel before the 1993 peace accords and have proved hard for Arafat to rein in since. Some who knew Jumayal say he didn't want to give up "fighting the occupation" and that he was arrested seven months ago in a roundup of dissidents who opposed the validity of the peace agreement. Some say he was being tortured for information. Others say he was being beaten so he would fear Arafat's rule.

Jumayal was never charged while in prison. And his interrogators - who have no legal guidelines restraining their actions - may not even have been under direct orders from Arafat.

Rather, the incident brings into question the degree of control Arafat exerts over his many police and security forces.

Even before Jumayal's death, revolt was brewing in Nablus prison, where inmates went on a hunger strike over inhumane conditions. Then, upset over Jumayal's death, thousands in Nablus called a general strike in protest, the first time the measure had been used against the PA.

Arafat is now in one of the most precarious positions he's been in since signing a peace accord with the Israelis.

With the new hard-line government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in power, Arafat is under ever more pressure to prove he is keeping up his end of the bargain by controlling Palestinian militants. But both pro-peace and rejectionist Palestinians decry prison conditions, methods of interrogation, and lack of due process in the PA.

Many Palestinians face a similar quandary to Arafat's. Most want to support the PA, but exposure to the Israeli occupation and the world media has left them with some of the most clearly developed notions of human rights in all the Arab world.

THE result, says Palestinian political scientist Ali Jarbawi, is: "On the one hand, people sympathize with the Authority because of pressure from outside sources, the peace process, and Israel. But on the other hand, they are frustrated by internal pressures."

In Nablus, plenty of young PLO supporters insist Arafat should not be blamed for Jumayal's death. "Like in America, when two white policemen beat a black man, does that mean [President] Clinton is responsible?" asks Karim Amir, at a PA office here.

Others, who have less interest in toeing the party line, are not so apologetic. Legislative council members who are trying to pass the "Basic Law" - which would distribute some of Arafat's power to other institutions - are increasingly critical of his rule.

"It's a mistake that the PA and Arafat are resorting to such hard measures in dealing with some dissent," says Gaza councilman Ziyad Abu Amr. "The Authority regards this as the best way to maintain order. But the root causes of dissent lie in legitimate demands from the people dealing with hundreds of Palestinian prisoners who are without charges and trial. Arafat is not paying much attention to ... the people."

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