Usually quiet dissent now heard on Palestinian street

JERUSALEM — With the monthlong Israeli siege over, life seems to be returning to normal in Ramallah. But beneath the surface, Palestinians are questioning their regime in unprecedented ways.

Dissent, which Palestinians usually keep to themselves because of threats to their livelihood or, indeed, their lives, is being heard after a wave of Palestinian terrorism in March brought a fierce Israeli reprisal that left Palestinian areas of the West Bank in ruins.

Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat may be out of his besieged headquarters, angrier and more militant than ever. But people in the streets, trying to cope with the aftermath of the fighting, increasingly are asking, was all this misery really necessary?

"People are tired," gas station attendant Mohammad Amir said. "People are not made of iron. Things have been more difficult than one could imagine."

"The suicide attacks contradict our national interest," Issam Sakker, a former laborer in Israel, said in Manara Square in downtown Ramallah. "They were counterproductive in that they intensified the pressure on Arafat."

One message that Israel's Operation Defensive Shield has conveyed to the Palestinians is that they paid dearly for the fact that their government left every Palestinian militia free to engage in terrorism against Israel.

Few Palestinians say that suicide bombings are immoral, but they do talk about their "ineffectiveness." Only a month ago, such statements were hardly heard — at least not openly on the street — and suicide bombers were exalted as martyrs. But the shock caused by the Israeli military operation has changed opinions, not only in the street, but also among Palestinian politicians, who are calling on Arafat to reform his government.

"One must begin discussing a reform in the institutions of the P.A.," said Nabil Amer, a member of the Palestinian legislative council who resigned from Arafat's Cabinet on Saturday, three days before another suicide bombing claimed at least 15 lives at a club near Tel Aviv.

"Everybody feels that an earthquake has taken place in Palestinian society. So the changes must be equal in size to what happened," Amer told journalists in Ramallah. "I say the change must come from within the Palestinian Authority."

According to a classified report reaching Israel's Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem, the Palestinian Authority's minister of international cooperation, Nabil Sha'ath, told Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov that the Palestinian leadership committed many mistakes, particularly in its attitude toward suicide bombers.

He said the phenomenon had caused considerable damage to the credibility of the Palestinian leadership, and should be stopped at all costs. Arafat himself condemned Tuesday night's suicide bombing.

Hussein A-Sheik, a leading official of Arafat's Fatah faction, demanded a reform in Fatah ranks. Last weekend A-Sheik urged that a party conference be convened for the first time in 13 years.

"One must discuss the strategy of the Fatah and elect a new leadership — except for Arafat, of course," A-Sheik said.

Even Arafat's top lieutenants say the disastrous events of the past month cannot be allowed to pass without comment.

"The establishment must learn the lessons of what happened," said Col. Jibril Rajoub, head of the once-powerful Preventive Security Service in the West Bank. "One must learn the lessons to bring about change, because what happened was a national disaster. One must check, What happened? Who bears the responsibility?"

Once mentioned as a possible successor to Arafat, Rajoub is believed to have lost much of his power. Rajoub was not present when his security headquarters in the Ramallah suburb of Bituniya was captured by the Israel Defense Force and surrendered with little resistance. He also was not with Arafat during the siege of his compound in central Ramallah.

Though many individuals in the security services have taken part in terrorist attacks, Rajoub has kept the forces, the closest thing to a Palestinian army, out of regular combat with Israel throughout the intifada.

Many Palestinians now see Rajoub as a collaborator with the Israelis. He sits at home, away from the decision-making process, frustrated, angry and tired.

One of Rajoub's greatest worries should be the growing demand for a drastic reform of the security forces to put the many official organizations under a unified command.

Judging by Rajoub's current political weakness, such a reform may force him into early retirement — not to speak of other, less pleasant options — with his Gaza Strip counterpart, Mohammad Dahlan, becoming head of the force. That would make Dahlan the virtual defense minister of the Palestinian Authority and a potential second-in-command to Arafat.

That scenario leaves many question marks: Is Arafat ready to accept a second-in-command? Does he really want order in the security forces — or would he prefer to keep multiple forces to maintain a veneer of deniability after terrorist attacks, preventing any single figure from becoming a potential challenger?

Even if Arafat opted for reform, it's not clear that he could carry it through. In addition to the multitude of official security forces, a variety of militias tied to Arafat have flourished in Palestinian areas, often taking the lead in terrorist attacks. Under its treaties with Israel, the Palestinian Authority is obligated to disarm the militias, which are still a presence in the Palestinian streets, casbahs and refugee camps.

The other major question mark is whether Arafat is prepared to confront the armed fundamentalist groups, such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad, who would have to be curbed for a unified Palestinian command to emerge.

Judging by voices heard last weekend, the Palestinian political arena is ready for a drastic change.

During a session of the Palestinian Cabinet last Friday, the first held since Arafat's release, Amer, the parliamentary affairs minister, was the spearhead of criticism. He demanded that a new Cabinet be appointed made up of members of the legislative council and under the council's supervision, "just like in any other democratic country."

Arafat responded by appointing a "reform committee," but Amer suspected that this was a way to avert real change, and he resigned.

While challenging Arafat to introduce changes, however, none of the ministers called for change at the top of the Palestinian pyramid, which Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and many Israelis see as the real prerequisite to peace.

No Palestinian dares talk openly of the need to replace Arafat. But they do whisper.

"There are scores of Palestinians who are disgusted with the idea that Hamas and Islamic Jihad will rule them and want a proper rule, which will allow them to live side by side with Israel," said Reuven Merhav, former director-general of Israel's Foreign Ministry and a former head of the Mossad secret service. "For the time being this is a non-free society that is being ruled by security organs, but there are wide circles out there whose voices are not heard, and their day will come."