Anger over PLO's grip on power

Bank heist shows challenges facing Arafat and his new prime minister.

The day began normally enough. Tellers at the Al Quds Investment Bank had been in since 8 a.m., filling the tills with cash, sorting through paperwork and getting ready for the day.

When the mail courier arrived, they thought nothing of it. He stopped in every morning with mail from other branches. When four veiled Muslim women pushed in after him, heads snapped round. The bank opens for customers at 9 a.m., but they weren't clients: The ladies of Beit Jala don't usually carry Kalashnikov rifles.

In minutes, the gang lightened the tills by $155,000 and sped off in the courier truck, leaving a cloud of dust and a trail of clues. The story of the heist, the capture, and a cop called Kojak isn't about greed, locals say, it's about Yasser Arafat, Palestinian politics, and - as Mr. Arafat's new prime minister assumes office - the futility of US and Israeli-imposed reform.

The crooks weren't Muslim and weren't even women. They were five local men whose ringleader turned out to be a former captain in the Palestinian intelligence services and the brother of Bethlehem's current deputy governor.

But what really had people squirming was the crooks' claim that the crime had been committed for and with the knowledge of the People's Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), a militant group motivated by a need for money they weren't getting from the Palestinian Authority.

Palestinian Kojak

Bethlehem's police chief Husni Rabae'a needed just two days driving around the rolling hills of Bethlehem and neighboring Beit Jala to put the burglars behind bars.

He sewed the case up so quickly that people now call him "Kojak," after the American TV detective who always got his man.

Despite the affectionate nickname though, the results of Rabae'a's investigation left many dismayed. "Politically motivated crime [of this type] isn't all that common around here," says Rabae'a, a stocky, smiling man who, despite his nickname, sports a full head of dark, gray-dusted hair.

Across town, a group of four PFLP men gathered in the chill gloom of a closed restaurant to explain to a reporter what had happened, even as they claimed ignorance of the caper.

They spoke of frustration with the corruption of Mr. Arafat's government, with the US and Israeli demand for Palestinian reform and the subsequent selection of a Palestinian prime minister Monday. Mahmoud Abbas, Arafat's longtime deputy in the Palestinian Liberation Organization, will take on responsibility for daily affairs as prime minister.

But Mr. Arafat will retain control of security and peace negotiations, a division of labor that is sure to disappoint American and Israeli officials who want Arafat sidelined.

The PFLP men sitting around the restaurant's Formica table have no confidence in Mr. Abbas. And despite the specific ax they have to grind about their jailed colleagues, their comments echo those made by others in interviews in other West Bank cities.

"When you tackle issues of economic poverty, you have to look for reasons," says one man who calls himself Michael. "It's not enough to say this is criminal, you have to say why the person became criminal and for this reason, we hold Arafat responsible for the bank robbery."

As someone's son quietly lays a tray of sweet tea on the table, the men lay out a tale of financial woe. Arafat, they say, controls Palestinian politics by controlling who gets money. That means his own Fatah party does well, while those who opposed him scrape by.

These days, they say, "the struggle" against Israel costs money. They fund social services, bankroll students and wanted men, and help suicide bombers' families. While glossing over the wisdom of robbing a Palestinian bank to fund a Palestinian cause, they say it is absolutely legitimate to steal to fund "the revolution."

And while they say Finance Minister Salam Fayyad is a good man, they argue that little will change while Arafat is around. "Arafat's continuous presence is the clearest sign of corruption," says Michael, a small, wiry man who only lights up at the memory of successful robberies. "The prime minister we have is a graduate of the school of Yasser Arafat; nothing will change. We need a prime minister who is freely elected by the people."

The table erupts at this, as the men argue about US and Israeli demands for reform as a condition for restarting negotiations. "It's definitely not for the US to decide for us," says a man called Andrew. "It should be our decision when to replace him. If Israel pulled out of our towns, people would be able to vote him out and they would do it today."

Outside the confines of Bethlehem and Beit Jala, you hear the same complaints as Palestinians evaluate their new leadership.

Low credibility

Many say that the US and Israeli demand for a prime minister has delegitimized the post.

"Reform is a good step, but it loses credibility because it's done to satisfy the USA," says civil engineer Younes Kawasmi, standing on a windswept West Bank road watching Israeli Army jeeps close the road he takes to get to work in Ramallah. "It has already damaged [Abbas'] legitimacy; people will associate him with American and Israeli dictates," says Mr. Kawasmi.

Kawasmi, bespectacled, bearded and wrapped tightly against the cold in a Palestinian scarf, speculates that this is exactly why Arafat agreed to Abbas - to weaken a powerful rival by burdening him with the stigma of Israeli and American approval.

Not far away, truck driver Ahmed Atiyah echos the sentiment while he watches the Israelis at work on the road. "We do not need more posts, much less this [Abbas]. He's not trustworthy because he is accepted by the Americans," he says.

Political analyst Hani Masri says the prime ministerial post is Arafat's attempt to protect himself during the upcoming war against Iraq, but says the gesture may have been for naught.

Palestinian reforms are meant to lead the way to renewed peace talks, but the US has just announced it is delaying publication of the "roadmap," which lays out the creation of a Palestinian state by 2005, until after the war with Iraq.

With US presidential elections due in 2004, few Palestinians here believe the US will ever have the time or interest to follow-up on the roadmap plan.

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