On Sunday, July 28, a young man, diagnosed as brain-dead, was hospitalized in Nablus, a city on the West Bank under the rule of Yasir Arafat’s Palestinian Authority (PA). According to the Palestinian security agents who brought him in, his name was Ahmad Sabah, and he was from Jenin, another West Bank town. For some reason, no one—no family members, no friends—came to look in on him.

To the medical staff of the hospital it was clear the mortally ill young man had undergone unspeakable suffering. His skull had been crushed by repeated blows, and every inch of his body was covered with reddish or bluish bruises. The severe burns on his chest and back told of torture by means of red-hot iron bars. Although the hospital made an attempt to find out what had happened, it was unable even to trace the man’s identity.

Early the next day, a directive arrived from the security forces: the patient was to be transferred to a hospital in Ramallah, still another town under the PA’s jurisdiction about fifteen minutes by car from Israel’s capital city of Jerusalem. There he was carried into the intensive-care unit, entrance to which was barred by four men armed with Kalashnikov assault rifles. Not even Bassam Eid, a well-known Palestinian human-rights activist who had been identified as a relative of the young man, was allowed in. Only that evening did a Nablus resident who was visiting a different patient in the hospital blunder by accident into the intensive-care unit, notice the clinically dead man, and recognize his features. Soon the story was out.

The pseudonymous youngster from Jenin turned out to be Mahmoud Jumayel, a leader of Fatah, Yasir Arafat’s own movement, in Nablus. By the time his death was officially confirmed two days later, Palestinian riots had broken out in the West Bank. For the first time in history, however, these riots were aimed not at the Israeli but at the Palestinian “occupier”—Yasir Arafat himself.

Indeed, the final months of Mahmoud Jumayel’s life throw into sharp relief the contours of a new Palestinian tragedy, just as they expose a deep sickness at the heart of the fledgling administration of the PLO chairman. At the signing of the Oslo peace accords in September 1993, the highest hopes were expressed by all parties for the new era that was about to dawn in the Middle East. Not only would peaceful relations at last obtain between Israel and its oldest antagonist, the Palestinian Arabs, but those Arabs themselves, liberated from the foreign occupier’s yoke, would quickly reap the benefits of self-rule and democratic rights, and be enabled at last to develop the free civic institutions guaranteed them by the charter of the PLO. Less than two and a half years later, whatever the state of relations between the PA and Israel, it is all too clear that Arafat and his henchmen have brought to the lives of their fellow Palestinians a level of brutality and corruption reminiscent of some of the Arab world’s most benighted regimes.



Mahmoud Jumayel was not exactly an angel. As a leader of the Fatah youth movement he had taken an active role in the intifada, the violent uprising against Israel that began in the late 1980’s. Later, during the twilight days of Israeli rule in Nablus, he prominently supported one of the most despotic local gangs (Tabuk) in its rivalry with Jibril Rajoub, head of one of the PA’s notorious security agencies. So long as Israeli forces remained in Nablus, Rajoub could not prevail over his rivals; but with the accession of the PA in December 1995, Rajoub arrested Jumayel and one of his associates.

The two men were detained in a jail in Jericho. They were not interrogated, and no charges were filed. Though their distraught families knocked desperately on every door, and sent endless petitions to their esteemed leader in Gaza, no response was forthcoming; no one in a position of authority even consented to see them, and senior members of Fatah who inquired into the matter were told to mind their own business. And so Jumayel sat in prison for seven months. What happened to change things on July 27 is still not known—the PA has refused all requests for information—but upon his transfer from Jericho to Nablus, Jumayel was handed over for some reason to investigators from the Palestinian naval command, who proceeded to string him up, crack his skull with blunt instruments, flog him with chains, and sear his flesh.

But as we have seen, the story did not end there. Apprised of what their stooges had done, PA officials compounded brutality with subterfuge, first hospitalizing their captive under a false name and then transferring him from hospital to hospital. When, finally, the truth came out, and public anger mounted, Arafat resorted—characteristically—to damage control: he announced the formation of a committee to investigate the cause of death. Whether such a committee was in fact ever formed is uncertain; if so, it investigated nothing. But, evidently alarmed by the intensity of the public protest, Arafat then undertook another characteristic initiative, convening a “state security court” in Jericho. This factitious body, composed of three military officers, conducted a hasty show trial of the officers who had tortured Mahmoud Jumayel to death. The men promptly confessed, and in the space of four hours, without benefit of substantive legal defense, they were convicted of all charges and handed lengthy prison sentences.

Scapegoats had been found, and more searching and decisive inquiries successfully avoided: who gave the order to interrogate and torture Jumayel; by whose authority had he been detained without trial for seven months, and why; who was responsible for the attempt to cover up the affair? Reporting on Jumayel’s funeral, Palestinian newspapers highlighted the words of a eulogy said to have been delivered by his father over the open grave, unreservedly praising his illustrious leader Abu Amar (Arafat’s nom de guerre). But Palestinian papers publish what the PA dictates; the fact is that shortly before the funeral procession began, Mahmoud’s grieving father had spoken to reporters with exceptional harshness about Arafat. Either he was compelled under threat to deliver a prepared text at the graveside or the papers simply printed a eulogy that was never spoken.



Thus the saga of Mahmoud Jumayel, as of mid-August the eighth detainee known to have been murdered by torture in a Palestinian jail. Thousands like him are being held behind bars without trial; thousands have been tortured; hundreds have been murdered for political reasons.

Who is behind these deeds? At the time of the Oslo agreement, the PLO command resided in Tunis, where it had ended up after long years of wandering from one Arab state to another. Arafat’s troops, in particular those designated the Palestine Liberation Army (PLA), were scattered all over the Arab world—one unit in Iraq, a second in Jordan, a third in Egypt, and so forth. Enlisted men and officers, some veterans, others fresh recruits, did not exactly constitute a fighting force. Many of them had settled into the countries in which they were billeted, had taken jobs, and were merely collecting a salary from the PLO. They adhered to the norms of their adopted societies and had even begun to speak with an Iraqi or Egyptian accent.

Senior officers did not even know who their counterparts were elsewhere, or, for that matter, who was who in the PLO command structure. Inside the PLA, exaggerated attention was paid to matters of rank and hierarchy. There were stubborn rumors of corruption among officers, of mistreatment of subordinates, of cowardice in battle. Needless to say, this did not prevent anyone’s advancement in the ranks; that depended on one criterion alone, namely, loyalty to the chairman.

The PLO’s political officers were likewise scattered and likewise enmeshed in their local scenes, whether in Tunis, Amman, or Cairo. Educated at the feet of Arab despots, they maintained among themselves no orderly system of relationships; all lines led in one direction only, to Arafat. From grand strategy to trifles, everything began and ended with him.

Upon their entry into “liberated Palestine”—i.e., Gaza and Jericho—in May 1994, both the political officers and the PLA troops met up and joined the top echelon of indigenous Fatah activists. There were two main criteria for appointing the latter to senior positions in the new military structures of the PA: personal closeness to the chairman, and length of stay in an Israeli prison. From the point of view of building a professional cadre, this was bad enough; much worse was what Arafat proceeded to do.

Far from attempting to transform the diverse units and their officers into a unified security force with a single hierarchy, the PLO chairman took the existing chaos and made it worse. As is well known, Arafat is congenitally suspicious of order and system, not to mention power consolidated in the hands of a hierarchy or any other center that might threaten his preeminence. In line with this, he established something like eight different security agencies with parallel and competing mandates. Though they bear impressive and comprehensive-sounding titles, they act as freewheeling militias or as gangs, each with its own detention centers and none accountable to anyone or anything, whether law court or legislative council. In effect, every ranking officer, and certainly every captain of a militia, is a king unto himself. In Gaza, even the firefighters maintain their own detention center, and freely arrest and imprison.

To this Turkish bazaar has been added the explosive issue of cultural difference. The population of the West Bank and Gaza spent 27 years under Israeli occupation—a lesson, among other things, in democracy. In those years it learned that even a man under “oppression” has rights. There is a law; there are avenues of public protest; and if all else fails there is a supreme court of justice. The encounter between the local graduates of Israeli-style democracy—even the Fatah members among them—and the new band of outsiders, violent, unrestrained, contaminated by Eastern ways, inevitably led to a collision.



The problem could be contained as long as Arafat’s forces were in control only in Gaza and Jericho. But by the end of 1995, when the second stage of the Oslo agreement was put into effect, men wearing the Palestinian uniform swarmed into the cities of Judea and Samaria—Ramallah, Nablus, Jenin, Bethlehem, and the rest—and the pot began to boil over. So far, the outsiders are prevailing.

In mid-July of this year, for example, one Nasser Masalmah arrived at his parent’s house in the village of Bait Avva. One of many thousands of Palestinians who had cooperated with Israeli security forces in the years of Israel’s administration of the territories, he had been given an Israeli identity card upon the accession of the PA and had moved into Israel proper. Now, coming home for a visit, he was picked up and brought in for questioning at a nearby Palestinian police station. (The interrogation was itself in violation of the Oslo accords, which forbid the arrest by Palestinians of anyone carrying an Israeli identity card; but such details have never troubled the PA.) At around 10:30 at night, Masalmah was released and made his way to his parents’ house. An hour later, unknown persons burst in, raked the house with automatic weapons, and fled. One family member was wounded. Masalmah and his brother-in-law were killed on the spot.

No one took responsibility for the attack, but the trail pointed to Masalmah’s interrogators from the Palestinian security organs: whoever released him no doubt also had sent the killers to deal with this man who had enjoyed good relations with Israel. And Masalmah is only one of hundreds of residents in the former territories who have been murdered on political grounds in the last two years. The victims are usually people considered to be “external” enemies, though not infrequently the passion for liquidation extends to members of rival security agencies.

Aside from such acts of deliberate violence, the last two and a half years have also claimed innumerable victims of official stupidity, light-mindedness, or a quick trigger finger. In April, Taysir A-Lozy, a twenty-three-year-old from Ramallah was returning from an outing with friends, and for some unknown reason their car was deemed “suspicious” by a Palestinian militiaman, who thereupon shot him in the head. As in the Jumayel case, the authorities next proceeded to cover their traces. Palestinian police attempted to kidnap the body from the local hospital in order to falsify the evidence, and then conjured up spurious charges against the young man and his companions, accusing them of drug-dealing, gun-running, and the like. The truth is that the militiaman responsible for the murder was simply acting in accordance with accepted norms—shoot first, ask questions later. No one investigates such incidents, and no one brings the perpetrators to justice.



Which brings us in general to the subject of Palestinian justice.

In January 1995, a resident of Jericho by the name of Salman Jalayta, along with a number of his friends, was arrested and interrogated by men under Jibril Rajoub’s command. After days of torture, Jalayta breathed his last; his body bore marks of treatment similar to that which would later be meted out to Mahmoud Jumayel (with minor embellishments—Jalayta’s skin had been torn by pincers). The other youngsters with him suffered similar treatment, though not to the point of death.

Jalayta and his comrades were publicly accused of having murdered a Jericho resident, a junior Hamas man, in a quarrel. (In what is by now a virtual convention, they were said to have collaborated with Israel.) They were also accused of larceny, lawlessness, and hooliganism. The charges were almost certainly false, but to this day none of them has been properly investigated, and Jalayta’s associates are still behind bars; they have not seen a magistrate, or a written indictment. Only after relentless pressure from their families and human-rights activists did it emerge that in April of this year—that is, fifteen months after their imprisonment—the young men, unrepresented by counsel, had been tried by a military tribunal and convicted on the basis of a confession.

In early August, two Palestinian human-rights workers finally succeeded in getting hold of the young men’s file. According to one of them, it was a fabrication through and through: all the documents it contained, including witnesses’ depositions and the bill of indictment, were written in the same hand and bore the same date. Neither the indictment nor the “confessions” of the accused stipulated what had led to the events of which they were convicted. One of the convicted men, Rashid Fitiyani, managed to tell his mother how his signature had been procured: “When they got through smashing my bones and told me to sign, nothing mattered any more. I signed, and that was that.”

The arrest and “trial” of the Jericho men illuminate some major features of the Palestinian system of justice. Prisoners are kept in jail for long months without trial, and sometimes without even an interrogation and without being told why they have been detained. When they are at last brought to trial, it is hardly ever clear under what provision of the law they have been charged, or why the trial is being conducted under one specific set of auspices rather than another.

In fact, there is no Palestinian law per se. Within the areas under the jurisdiction of the PA, at least four different systems are in place—Jordanian law, Egyptian law, British Mandatory law, and the revolutionary code adopted by the PLO in 1979—and no one knows which of them will be used when. Confusion reigns in the court system as well. For all practical purposes, civil courts can hardly be said to exist. There is a high court of appeals in Gaza, and another appellate court in Ramallah, but they compete in no clear-cut way with military or revolutionary courts whose very names are constantly changing. As for the military courts, they are mostly a kind of front, at the service of the regime when and as needed: a group of reliable officers is assembled, they set up an impromptu courtroom in some military installation or other, and hastily perform the task required of them by the chairman.

Lately a group of lawyers has turned to the appellate court in Ramallah demanding the release of ten students who have been held without a hearing since last March. The government prosecutor has responded that the appellate court lacks jurisdiction in the case. This confronts the magistrates with an exceptionally difficult dilemma. They must be well aware that if they rule against the prosecutor, not only will no one honor the ruling, but they may end up paying for their rashness. They have only to look to the example of Qusai Abdallah, chief justice of the supreme court of appeals in Gaza, who in early June dared to rule against the government prosecutor in the false arrest of the human-rights activist Eyad Sarraj. In short order the judge was forced to retire from the bench and put under house arrest.



If neither the military nor the judiciary can be trusted by ordinary Palestinians, what, then, of their representative institutions, or the media?

In late January of this year, voting took place for a new Palestinian Legislative Council. Former President Jimmy Carter, on hand for the occasion, duly pronounced the election democratic to a fault, and so did an international team of observers, cheered on by an Israeli government anxious to confer the tokens of legitimacy on its peace partner. Had the elections been properly inspected, however, a different picture would have emerged: not only were they undemocratic, they were not even proper elections.

For one thing, the Islamic resistance had condemned the exercise from the outset and for the most part refused to participate. For another, Arafat saw to it through the usual means that dissenting candidates would not be elected in any significant number, and he also winnowed his own Fatah list to make sure it was filled with yes-men. Here and there, it is true, he faced opposition—honest and brave men and women—but in general he was able to ensure himself a sweeping victory. The majority of those elected were drawn from the innards of his political apparatus.

The vote produced a council of 88 members whose job is to serve as a legislative assembly—a parliament, for all intents and purposes—but there can be no illusion that this parliament has teeth. It cannot influence, it cannot criticize, and it has not legislated a single matter of substance. Arafat freely ignores any action of which he does not approve, including the five proposals put forward so far for a proper constitution. At the end of July, when the subject of the constitution was about to be broached yet again, the chairman turned to the members, denounced them as “sons of whores”—and left the chamber. Whereupon the deliberations ended.

As for the administrative functions of government, though Arafat committed himself at Oslo to forming proper institutions—offices and ministries with orderly tables of organization, a professional bureaucracy, agreed-upon procedures for decision-making—no real thought was ever given to the matter, and from the start the executive institutions of the PA were staffed mostly with Arafat loyalists. A handful of Palestinian intellectuals, educated in Western universities, could be heard warning that a decade’s imprisonment, or family ties to a given cabinet minister, or for that matter fanatic loyalty to Yasir Arafat himself did not necessarily constitute qualification for public office; what was needed were trained professionals, expertise, objective norms and standards. Nobody took the warnings seriously, and the results are evident for all to see.

Then there are the Palestinian press and broadcast media, an area in which Arafat’s hand is especially evident. Most Palestinian papers of any substance are printed and published in the relatively protected environs of Jerusalem, the capital of the Zionist state. Yet despite this fact, and despite the shining model afforded by the unfettered Israeli press right next door, the PA has managed over the last year and a half to terrorize virtually every Palestinian publisher, editor, and journalist and turn him into a faithful parrot of the Arafat line.

Practically immediately upon the entry of the PA into Gaza and Jericho in mid-1994, for example, Arafat issued an order to close Al-Nahar, a daily newspaper which he accused of serving as a mouthpiece for King Hussein of Jordan. The paper’s publisher, although he lived and worked in Jerusalem, did not dare defy the order from Gaza. Within 40 days of the shut-down, thoroughly broken, he agreed to accept Arafat’s dictates and Al-Nahar began to appear again, as a now-dependable adherent of the “Palestinian national line.”

In the days and months following, other editors and reporters received the personal attentions of Arafat’s men whenever they dared write or publish something displeasing to the regime. One such incident occurred eighteen months ago, when a number of papers made the mistake of reporting the exact size of a rally held by the opposition. Summoned to a meeting, the editors were officially informed that henceforth they were authorized to publish only those texts and statistics given to them by Wafa, the Palestinian news service. Those failing to knuckle under, like the opposition paper Al-Ummah, were physically attacked: Arafat’s security forces first confiscated the newspaper’s press plates and then burned down its offices, which again were located in Jerusalem. (The Rabin government, which knew all about the incident, said nothing.)

These various actions had the desired effect, especially when combined with arrests. A journalist named Samir Hamatu, apparently suspected of having links to the Islamic opposition, has been sitting in jail in Gaza since March, unindicted and untried. Another, the night editor of Al-Quds, the largest Palestinian daily, having flouted an order from Gaza to headline some flattering remarks about Arafat uttered by a Christian patriarch, was kidnapped—yet again within Jerusalem—and held in prison for five days in Jericho until he learned his lesson.

On the radio, the “Voice of Palestine” has been docile from the start. Nevertheless, the station’s most popular broadcaster, Danial Karim Halaf, was fired after she permitted a critic of the regime to express his views on the air.



Helping to keep the PA enterprise afloat are corruption and graft, both petty and large-scale. On the level of the petty, which is what most Palestinians see every day, the practice among many PA officials is to help themselves to goods and services—when, for instance, the commander of one of the many security agencies operating in Bethlehem wants a haircut, his men block off the street and allow no one to pass until their chieftain has been served (gratis, naturally).

An intricate system of localized gangsterism and patronage has also sprung up. A resident of a village near Ramallah found himself in jail after accidentally hitting a car belonging to the son of a Palestinian cabinet minister; another resident, an engineer by profession, got two broken ribs after he declined to vacate the parking spot of the same minister’s wife. On the other hand, if a local is lucky enough to have friends in high places, not even the legal rights of another Palestinian will hinder him from getting his way. Thus, in the Christian town of Beit Jallah south of Jerusalem, a woman fell out with two of her neighbors over a plot of land. Though the neighbors were from an important local family, and were in the legal right, the woman had an advantage: connections with the local police chief. Her adversaries were promptly seized and tortured until they agreed to sign away their claim to the disputed property.

As in most societies, events on the local level give a hint of arrangements at the top—in this case, the wholesale economic swindling of foreign donors and others by the PA elite.

In October 1993, at the height of the Oslo euphoria, a group of countries led by the U.S. agreed to contribute a total of $2.1 billion to the PA over a period of five years, as a token of support for the young democracy-in-the-making. Various conditions were attached to the gift, among them the establishment of an agency that would be responsible for absorbing and distributing the funds in accordance with strict accounting procedures. This agency was indeed set up, under the name Palestinian Economic Council for Development and Reconstruction (PECDAR). But the donor nations, instead of being rewarded with oversight and integrity in the handling of their money, have been treated to duplicity and obfuscation.

PECDAR was supposed to be wholly independent of the PA; its mandate was to ensure that the sums coming from abroad would flow especially to development projects. Today, the agency is entirely in the hands of Arafat, and most of the money that has already been contributed has gone not to development projects but to the establishment and maintenance of a growing military machine and a swollen government bureaucracy. At the same time, an impressive portion of the money—the gift of European and, especially, American taxpayers—has ended up in the pockets of senior PA officials. Arafat himself and his closest associates skim from the top, the former to subsidize his political activities, the latter to fatten their personal bank accounts.

It is not just foreign governments that are being ripped off. Private investors contemplating doing business under the PA can likewise expect to forgo hefty sums in graft and hush money. Muhammad Rashid, Arafat’s economic adviser, is among those benefiting financially from every sack of cement, every carton of cigarettes, that comes into Gaza. One consequence of all this activity has been a marked rise in the quality of motor transport among PA officials. The astonishing number of luxuriously appointed Mercedeses adorning the streets of Gaza and the West Bank stands in stark contrast to the steadily shrinking economic prospects of ordinary Palestinians, many of whom—thanks to the failure or refusal of Arafat to curb terrorism against Israel—have been cut off from their source of livelihood by a closure of the territories and are on the brink of starvation. As the plight of the average Palestinian in the autonomous region worsens, the wealth of the PA political elite grows ever more conspicuous.



How long can this go on? Lately, indeed, it has become possible to gauge the degree of dissatisfaction with Arafat’s rule on the part of his subjects. In early August, as I noted above, popular riots broke out in two Palestinian towns, Nablus and Tulkarm. In Tulkarm, a mob of thousands gathered. Before things got out of hand, the angry crowd pulled down a giant poster of Arafat that hung in the town square (it had been paid for, under coercion, by a local publisher) and tore it to shreds. In the melee, some 50 to 60 detainees broke out of prison and managed to get away before police began shooting, killing one demonstrator.

This was six weeks after Benjamin Netanyahu’s upset victory in the Israeli elections, an event that was greeted, ironically enough, by jubilation among many Arabs in Hebron and East Jerusalem, two Palestinian strongholds which have yet to fall to the tender mercies of the PA. Some were open in expressing their joy; others whispered the hope that the new Israeli Prime Minister would yet rescue them from the clutches of dictatorship.

Around the same time, the lines outside the branch of the Israeli office of internal affairs in East Jerusalem began to lengthen. Most of the people there were anxious to apply, at any price, for an Israeli identity card. Throughout the PA, indeed, this blue card has become the most desirable commodity imaginable—a ticket out of hell.

But relatively few will receive a blue identity card, and relatively few will be able to save themselves. What then? Although the full scope of what is going on in the areas under the jurisdiction of the PA may not be known to the Western public, there is no doubt that interested Western governments have been apprised of every detail, and (like at least the previous Israeli government) have sedulously maintained silence. That silence is perhaps best explained by an offhand remark of the late Yitzhak Rabin, who once expressed his confidence in Yasir Arafat’s ability to deal handily with his internal opposition, unhampered (in contrast to Rabin himself) by “the [Israeli] Supreme Court and [the Israeli human-rights organization] B’Tselem.”

Rabin, in truth, had little interest in the human rights of Palestinians. What he cared about was the continuation of the political process initiated with Arafat at Oslo. So, too, the present administration in Washington; so, too, the donor nations of Western Europe; and so, too, those Arab countries which have declared their political support of the PA (Arab financial support has been minimal). Any effort to rein in this tyranny, to encourage the formation of real democratic institutions and a society of law, would have to come from those in possession of a stick—namely, the donors, and especially the U.S. Such an effort would bring untold benefits to the Palestinian people; but it would also clearly endanger the man, and the men, at the top. So far, and no doubt for that very reason, there is not the slightest sign of its happening.

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