December 2, 1999
The ambush-style shooting of an outspoken political
opponent of Yasser Arafat set off a volley of recriminations Thursday, with
the wounded man asserting he was the victim of a revenge attack by Arafat
loyalists and the Palestinian leader’s supporters rushing to close ranks
The wounding late Wednesday of lawmaker Moawya al-Masri also galvanized
debate over an array of topics long deemed taboo among Palestinians: the
limits of political dissent, the allocation of power and privilege in
Palestinian society, and the long tradition among Palestinians of
unquestioning loyalty to Arafat.
The unexpectedly wide-ranging and candid argument comes against a backdrop of
Palestinian anxiety over the peace process. Long-stalled negotiations were
revived under Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak, who was elected in May on a
peace platform but who has yet to preside over any dramatic breakthrough.
Palestinians are hoping that the arrival this weekend of Secretary of State
Madeleine Albright will help break a deadlock over West Bank territory to be
handed over, but recent months have been marked by simmering tensions over
Jewish settlers’ efforts to seize more land and Israeli demolitions of
illegally built Palestinian homes.
Al-Masri, the wounded lawmaker from the northern West Bank town of Nablus,
was shot hours after a parliamentary session in which he and other dissident
legislators were sharply reprimanded for criticizing Arafat. On Thursday,
al-Masri received hundreds of well-wishers at his family home in Nablus’ old
The 55-year-old lawmaker, a physician who spends several days a week working
at a clinic for the poor, said at least one of the three masked assailants
who attacked him was a member of the Palestinian security forces. He said he
recognized him when he tore the mask from his face.
Palestinian police in Nablus released a statement Thursday, saying arrests
have been made in the case and the investigation was continuing. No details
were given about the number of people arrested or their identities.
In his latest comments, al-Masri renewed the same sort of political criticism
that earned him censure from lawmakers Wednesday. He and 19 others had signed
a manifesto that directly blamed Arafat for allowing widespread corruption in
his government. The signers circulated the document, which also criticized
Arafat’s handling of the peace process, last weekend.
An infuriated Arafat ordered the detentions of the 11 non-lawmakers who
signed, and threatened to lift the parliamentary immunity of the legislators.
Eight of those detained have since been freed.
“Corruption is in all official institutions,” al-Masri told reporters, his
wounded leg swathed in bandages and propped up on a low table. “We don’t
have laws and we don’t have a judiciary.”
The head of the Nablus police, Col. Firas al-Emleh, said police were not
investigating the possibility that a member of the security forces was among
the assailants. “The Palestinian Authority does not attack its own
citizens,” he said.
Arafat himself spent the day in the Gaza Strip, with no public appearances.
But his partisans took to the streets in a show of support that verged on a
show of force.
About 500 members of Arafat’s elite presidential guard paraded through the
West Bank town of Hebron, many of them waving flags and toting weapons.
Military jeeps displayed big portraits of Arafat, and a military band played
The commander of the guard, Abdullah Talal, said the Palestinian leader must
be shielded from criticism. “This march … is to show that Arafat is our
leader, and that no one can touch him,” he said.
Personal criticism of Arafat is almost unheard of in Palestinian public
discourse. Part of that unremitting respect stems from a genuine sense among
Palestinians that he is the chief symbol of their statehood aspirations. But
at least some of it is due to fear of the consequences.
Arafat’s allies sought Thursday to portray any criticism of him as hurting
the Palestinian cause.
Tayeb Abdel Rahim, a top aide, told a gathering in Gaza that critical
commentary was “aimed at serving outside parties … to fill the path ahead
with potholes so that we won’t be able to reach our national aims.”
Arafat’s most implacable foes, the Islamic military group Hamas, also jumped
into the fray, expressing concern about the attack on al-Masri and using it
to get in a few digs.
“This incident should not pass without real accountability, to protect the
country from discord,” Hamas spiritual leader Sheik Ahmed Yassin said in a
statement. He urged Arafat to do more to fight corruption and to respect
“pluralism and freedom of speech.”
One of the signers, lawmaker Abdel Jawad Saleh, called the attack on al-Masri
“an attempt to frighten us all.”
“This does not scare us,” he said by telephone from his home in the West
Bank. “We are aware of the situation and what we are facing.”