November 12, 2002
RAMALLAH — When a leading reformer and outspoken critic of suicide
bombings left Yasser Arafat’s government this fall, he told the Palestinian leader
he was fed up with the corruption and militancy of security forces in the West
Bank and Gaza Strip.
In an interview with The Globe and Mail, Abdel Razak Yehiyeh said that during
his term as Palestinian interior minister, he was prevented from demilitarizing
the police forces and overruled when he tried to remove several commanders
who had participated in attacks on Israelis.
He said he found the task of reforming the police impossible.
“The ones I did succeed in moving are now back in their jobs.”
Although also deeply critical of Israeli policy, Mr. Yehiyeh’s complaints, which
he is making public for the first time, confirm some of Israel’s criticisms of Mr.
Arafat: That while he may mouth a commitment to reform and an end to
military confrontation with Israel, he often opposes it in practice.
Mr. Yehiyeh, who left cabinet last month, was appointed interior minister in
June, at a time when Mr. Arafat was under intense international pressure to
demonstrate his willingness to reform.
Mr. Yehiyeh quickly launched an ambitious plan to “demilitarize” the conflict
with Israel and streamline the web of Palestinian police and security forces.
“I was against any kind of armed struggle,” said Mr. Yehiyeh, who is a former
general of both the Syrian army and the Palestinian Liberation Army. “I was in
disagreement with the concept.”
Mr. Yehiyeh shocked some Palestinians with his frank denunciations of suicide
attacks on Israelis, which he described as both tactically and morally misguided.
He said that the suicide-bombing campaign “contradicts our religious, moral and
He argued for replacing armed resistance to the Israeli occupation of the
Palestinian territories with civil resistance.
Although he was careful to avoid criticizing Mr. Arafat directly during the
interview, it was clear that he became exasperated with the obstacles the
Palestinian leader put in his way.
“The issue of commanders in the police sector was a big issue,” he said. “It
was difficult to convince the leadership to make changes.”
Mr. Yehiyeh hinted that Mr. Arafat was shocked at demonstrations that erupted
after he ousted the Palestinian security chief on the West Bank, Jibril Rajoub.
For a time, Mr. Rajoub waged a defiant public campaign to retain his job.
“At the end of the day, I am a soldier,” Mr. Yehiyeh said, “and I would
not tolerate anyone staying in place beyond his time.”
Mr. Yehiyeh said his efforts to dampen the conflict with Israel, although they
enjoyed broad international support, were also deliberately undermined by
militant organizations such as Hamas, Islamic Jihad and al-Aqsa Martyrs
When he negotiated a scheme for Israel to hand over security control of
the Gaza Strip and the West Bank city of Bethlehem, the militants launched
attacks on settlements and Israeli soldiers in the Gaza Strip.
“The factions in the Gaza Strip that were opposed to my strategy launched
attacks that provoked the Israeli defence minister to
cancel negotiations,” he said.
In frustration, Mr. Yehiyeh sent a letter to Mr. Arafat on Sept. 9, saying that he
was “suspending” his work as interior minister. Mr. Arafat tried unsuccessfully
to persuade him to change his mind.
However, that drama was obscured by a political earthquake two days
later when the Palestinian parliament forced the entire cabinet to resign in
protest over the cronyism and corruption of Mr. Arafat’s government.
By the time Mr. Arafat appointed a new cabinet last month, he had recuperated
some of his political strength as a result of an Israeli siege of his home and
office in Ramallah. He replaced the independent Mr. Yehiyeh with Hani
al-Hassan, a long-time associate.
Mr. Arafat’s aides suggested at the time that Mr. Yehiyeh did not want to
return to government because of the illness of his wife, which he flatly denied.
He had no intention of returning to the government, he insisted, once it was
evident that he could not achieve real reform.
Mr. Yehiyeh is critical of his successor, Mr. al-Hassan, who has said that he
opposes Palestinian attacks inside Israel but sees nothing wrong with attacks
on Israeli soldiers or Jewish settlers in the Palestinian territories.
“From a legal and theoretical point of view that may be correct,” he said. “But I
look at it in terms of profit and loss. This won’t do us any good and we should
Remarkably, despite the frustrations he faced, Mr. Yehiyeh believes that the
idea of replacing armed struggle with civil resistance is gaining ground with the
Palestinian public, for whom the two-year-old uprising has brought a life of daily
“I believe that future events and situations will eventually impose
on the Palestinian government,” he said, “and it will have no
choice but to undertake reform.”