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Palestinians Fear Being Stifled

June 11, 2000

NABLUS, West Bank (AP) _ Political scientist Abdel Sattar Qassem has spent what should have been a book-writing sabbatical in a stifling prison cell furnished only with a lumpy bed and a plastic chair.

Qassem, 50, has been jailed since November, when he accused Yasser Arafat of being responsible for rampant corruption in the government that runs the autonomous Palestinian areas.

Similar ``offenses″ have landed several others in custody in recent weeks, and a West Bank teacher was imprisoned for leading his colleagues in a strike for higher pay. Three private TV stations and two radio stations were closed for giving Arafat critics a platform.

Autocratic rule is nothing new in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, which were under Israeli military occupation for 28 years. However, the recent arrests by Arafat’s Palestinian Authority have heightened concerns that suppression of dissent and disregard for human rights will become the norm in the independent state Palestinians hope to establish.

``I’m very pessimistic,″ said Bassem Eid, a human rights activist.

Arafat’s advisers say that the eventual goal is democracy, but that there are limits to how much dissent and disruption can be tolerated during the difficult struggle to win statehood.

Dissidents say the international community appears to be giving a higher priority to the successful conclusion of a final Israeli-Palestinian peace treaty than to democracy in the West Bank and Gaza.

U.S. diplomats in the region deny they look the other way, saying human rights violations are closely monitored.

Many Palestinians grumble about Arafat’s rule, irked by brash nepotism, the display of sudden wealth by those in his inner circle and the disappointing results of the peace talks, now in their eighth year.

But Palestinian intelligence agents rarely target ordinary citizens and instead go after opinion makers, such as journalists, union leaders and university lecturers.

In the strongest attack on Arafat, 20 intellectuals and legislators asked their countrymen in a manifesto circulated in November to ``stand together against this tyranny and corruption.″

Palestinian police arrested many of the signers and prodded them to recant. Most did, and only Qassem, a professor at An Najah University in the West Bank town of Nablus, remains in prison.

Qassem has a long history of challenging authority. After four years as a college professor in Jordan, he was expelled for political activism in the 1970s. During the 1987-93 Palestinian uprising against Israel’s military occupation of the West Bank, he was held without trial for three stretches of six months each.

``Now it is the turn of the Palestinian Authority″ to arrest him, his wife, Amal, said bitterly.

Qassem, a graduate of the University of Missouri, was released after a 40-day stint in jail, but re-arrested Feb. 18 without explanation. The Palestinian police chief, Brig. Gen. Ghazi Jabali, said charges would be filed soon, but gave no details other than to say Qassem was suspected of ``security violations.″

Qassem, a political independent, opposes the preliminary peace agreements with Israel as a sellout of Palestinian interests, but he distances himself from the Islamic militants who oppose Arafat. At the time of his arrest, he was writing a book critical of the limited public role of Muslim women. He finished the book in his cell.

Qassem’s few supporters say Arafat tries to keep dissidents in line by intimidation.

Legislator Abdel Jawad Saleh, who resigned as Arafat’s agriculture minister in 1998 to protest government corruption, was beaten by Palestinian policemen when he led a small protest against Qassem’s detention in December.

``I believe he (Arafat) felt that as independents, we are uncontainable,″ said Saleh. ``He is trying to subject some of us to terrorism.″

Arafat has applied the same approach to irritating domestic problems, such as the prolonged strike by teachers seeking a 25 percent raise in average monthly pay of $375 a month.

Strike leader Omar Assaf has been in custody since being arrested May 5 after an interview he gave to the private Voice of Peace and Love radio station.

Assaf said the Palestinian Authority could finance teacher raises by using part of what he said is $400 million in income from state monopolies on the sale of flour, cement, tobacco and petroleum. Arafat and a few aides control the profits from the monopolies, which are not made part of the state budget.

The radio station was closed for several days after the interview.

The Palestinian Authority’s planning minister, Nabil Shaath, said that only one monopoly remained, on petroleum products, and that the World Bank and foreign donors have praised the Palestinian Authority for making financial dealings more transparent.

Shaath says Arafat’s eventual goal is to establish a democratic state, but Palestinians will have to accept some restrictions before then, ``certain limits relating to security and viability.″

Saleh, the lawmaker, said he no longer believes such assurances. The violations of basic rights, including arbitrary arrests and mistreatment of detainees _ 22 have died in custody in six years _ are too systematic, he said.

``This is a mafia,″ Saleh said, referring to the Palestinian Authority. ``There is no law.″

Assaf, the strike leader, meanwhile, got a new cell mate last week _ journalist Maher Alami, who spoke out against the recent closure of the Al Nasr TV station. Al Nasr had broadcast a talk show with some of the signers of the anti-corruption manifesto that landed Qassem in jail.

Assaf’s wife, Naimeh, said her husband spent many years in Israeli prisons as a leader of the Palestinian uprising.

``Isn’t the suffering we went through with the Israelis enough?″ she said. ``It is very hard to go through this again with your own people.″

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