Human-rights groups fear Wyes impact on Palestinians

Her family believes it has already paid a heavy price for Israeli security demands — even though before the latest accord Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu often complained that the Palestinian Authority maintained no security cooperation with Israel.

More than two years ago, Israel ordered the Palestinians to arrest Talahmeh's husband, Saleh, a 32-year-old computer engineer. They gave no reason, but the Palestinians swiftly obliged.

Saleh Talahmeh was never allowed to see a lawyer or put on trial. He remains in prison today — ironically, in a Jericho facility once run by the Israeli army.

Majida Talahmeh, a mother of four dressed in a traditional white head scarf, admits her husband is a sympathizer of Hamas, the Islamist movement whose military wing has killed scores of Israelis in recent years in an effort to destroy the peace process.

But she claims he was never involved in attacks on Israelis, and she cannot understand how his imprisonment improves Israeli security.

A provision of the Wye agreement calling on Israel to release 750 imprisoned Palestinians offers her little hope.

"Arafat might then agree to arrest those who were released," she said cynically.

Human rights groups echo the Talahmeh family's sentiments. They fear that the security provisions of the Wye accords, drafted to ease Israeli concerns, will only lead to more human rights violations by the Palestinian Authority, which already has a poor record.

At the same time, they say, Israel appears oblivious to the security dangers of fostering a Palestinian police state on its doorstep.

And some experts even predict tougher action by the Palestinian Authority could backfire by fueling frustration with Arafat and boosting support for Hamas, the very group Israel hopes to see undermined by the new accord.

Immediately after the Wye agreement was signed, Palestinian police launched a series of measures against Islamist groups, though not all appeared to directly improve Israeli security.

They detained 11 journalists — including several representing Western news agencies — who interviewed Sheik Ahmed Yassin, the spiritual leader of Hamas who vowed that the new accord would not prevent Hamas terror cells from carrying out attacks.

Two prominent Hamas clerics in Nablus and Gaza who voiced opposition to the agreement was also arrested. One of them is Sheik Hamed Bitawi, who is employed by the Palestinian Authority's Waqf Islamic Affairs Ministry.

And in an ominous sign of possible Palestinian infighting to come, Palestinian police raided an office of Fatah, Arafat's own political movement, in a search for documents and illegal weapons.

The raid sparked a clash Sunday between Palestinian security forces and Fatah activists.

Some of the protesters shouted that the head of the Palestinian Authority's military intelligence was a spy for Israel and should be beaten. At that point, eyewitnesses said, some of the protesters began to throw stones at the military intelligence headquarters. The security forces responded with live fire.

Palestinian sources said this was the first time that Palestinian Authority security forces ever fired at Fatah.

In the clash, two bullets lodged in the head of one Palestinian teen-ager, who later died. Three others were wounded. The fatality was identified as Wasim Yousef Tarifi, 18, a nephew of Palestinian Authority Civil Affairs Minister Jamil Tarifi.

Fatah leaders are now demanding that those responsible for the shooting be executed.

Many Palestinians see the new crackdown as a continuation of Arafat's thuggish policies since his arrival in the Palestinian areas in 1994.

In areas it controls, the nascent Palestinian regime has used many controversial methods reminiscent of Israel's occupation — including torture and administrative detention — to quell opposition to Arafat and the peace process and to satisfy Israel.

According to Bassem Eid, executive director of the Palestinian Human Rights Monitoring Group, some 150 Palestinians have been locked up without trial like Saleh Talahmeh.

Another 500 are imprisoned without trial, either for allegedly collaborating with Israel or for criminal offenses. Dozens more alleged terrorists have been convicted through the state security courts, which snatch suspects from their homes for midnight trials.

These moves allow the Palestinian Authority to show Israel that it is cracking down on terrorism while avoiding Israeli demands for extradition.

Arafat, whose authoritarian governing style is well documented, appears to have little remorse about using these methods — even though the 1995 Interim Agreement called for security crackdowns to be carried out "with due regard to internationally accepted norms of human rights and the rule of law."

But Eid and other human rights monitors say Israeli security demands, backed by the United States, only push the Palestinian Authority to contravene international standards of human rights.

"The Americans and Israelis are supporting Arafat's dictatorial tendencies," says Eid. "It is already extremely difficult to build institutions of democracy or civil society under current Israeli demands."

Last week, Human Rights Watch, an international human rights group, warned that the Wye agreement — which calls in part for CIA officials to monitor Palestinian compliance on security issues — could deal a further blow to Palestinian democracy.

"The Palestinian Authority's human rights record is already deplorable," says Hanny Megally, executive director of the group's Middle East and North Africa division. "The U.S. doesn't condemn these violations now. Will the U.S. condemn violations once it is part of the process that creates them?"

Some U.S. officials say CIA involvement in Palestinian security could lead to an improvement, since the CIA may try to train Palestinian security forces in less controversial methods.

If they don't, say experts, a further crackdown with more wanton arrests could ultimately undermine Israeli security.