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A bitter taste comes with Palestinian self-rule

GAZA STRIP — GAZA STRIP -- The first taste of self-rule for Palestinians in the Gaza Strip has been a bitter one: The economy has gotten worse, many ministries are not working, the government resembles dictatorship more than democracy.

Palestinians who thought autonomy would improve their lives say they are disillusioned. Patrols by the Israeli army have been ,, largely withdrawn, curfews are over and the daily clashes on the streets have largely ended. But little else has gotten better, they say.

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Instead, the fledgling Palestinian government only adds another layer of bureaucracy onto the continuing Israeli restrictions.

And the democracy that Palestinians say they expected has been throttled by a strict one-man rule with an alarming resemblance to other authoritarian Arab regimes.

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A mood of despair came through in dozens of interviews in the Gaza Strip, where Palestinian autonomy began last May, and in the West Bank, where Palestinians gradually are taking over services from Israelis.

"We were expecting from the authority that things would be better," said Fayez Abed-Rabbo, 31, a policeman huddled with friends over a fire to ward off a winter chill in Gaza City. "But things are even worse than before."

Around another fire in a poor Gaza Strip refugee camp, Deir al-Balah, the chill seemed sharper and the sentiments more grim.

"The people can't be patient. After one or two months, there will be a revolution against the chairman and his supporters," said Mohammed Salim Habash, 57, an out-of-work fisherman.

"There's no democracy," said Zaki Abud Mahadi, 59, as he stirred the fire. "If you want to do anything, you have to have a friend in the authority. Either money to pay someone, or a friend."

Fifteen months ago, Palestinians deliriously cheered the agreement with Israel, which offered a degree of self-rule for the first time in Palestinian history. Seven months ago they cheered the arrival of their police and had high hopes for the beginning of autonomy.

The Palestine Liberation Organization had planned for this day, everyone was assured. PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat would set up a democratic government, call home the expertise and money of Palestinians scattered abroad, and develop a bustling nation in the Gaza Strip and West Bank.

Instead, according to Palestinians in and outside the new government, the experiment has fallen flat. Unemployment in the Gaza Strip has risen to above 50 percent. Inflation has soared. New departments set up by the authority are barely functioning.

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Palestinians see the new officials as mostly favorites and cronies of Mr. Arafat. Fighting among factions has broken out again. Plans for Palestinians to assume greater control of the West Bank are bogged down in disputes with Israel. Hopes to get billions of dollars in financial aid are snagged by the refusal of Mr. Arafat to account adequately for the funds.

"Things have moved damned slow," acknowledged Hasan Abu Libdeh, head of the statistics branch of the Palestinian authority. "There's been a lot of talk. A lot of theory was invented at a lot of meetings. But there hasn't been much on the ground."

Palestinians universally blame Israel's foot-dragging on the peace plan and its continued grip on Palestinian affairs. But now, they also blame Mr. Arafat. The popularity of the man once widely respected as the symbol of Palestinian aspirations has dropped sharply: In a recent poll, only 44 percent said they would vote for him.

Supporters of Mr. Arafat say that it is too soon to judge autonomy, that the self-government needs more time to get on its feet. Mr. Arafat blames other countries for failing to send the money that they had pledged.

"We have a very big job. It's very difficult," said Marwan Barghutti, a top supporter of Mr. Arafat in the West Bank. "Without money, you can't build a state."

But the stumbling within the authority is obvious. Recently, for example, an official of the Palestinian economic authority signed a multimillion dollar contract with AT&T; for "exclusive" phone services in the Gaza Strip. On the same day, Mr. Arafat signed an identical contract with another company.

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The authority spent $5 million to whitewash political graffiti, only to provide clean walls for new spray-painted slogans. The new, grandiose port in Gaza turned out to be a flimsy dock that collapsed in a storm. An outbreak of cholera last month -- initially denied by the new Health Ministry -- resulted in an embargo of Gaza vegetables and restrictions on Palestinians at the borders.

Ahmed Qrei, minister of economics and trade, told the daily Arabic newspaper An-Nahar that plans made for the arrival of the authority in Gaza "are worthless" and that no progress had been made.

"You don't see any projects here," said Jamal Awadallah, a businessman in Gaza.

The chief problem, according to those within the authority, is Mr. Arafat's authoritative style. He insists on approving even the smallest of decisions.

Mr. Arafat "is the filter for every personal request, every decision," said Samir Abdallah, a top official of PECDAR, the Palestinian Economic Council for Development and Reconstruction, set up to oversee all international financial aid.

Mr. Arafat's insistence that he alone control international aid has undercut PECDAR, and made donor countries shy away.

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Mr. Arafat and his aides say that the failure of international aid is the chief cause of their problems.

"We are dependent on the financial side on the donors," said Mr. Barghutti. "They have paid nothing until now."

Of $2.4 billion in aid promised after the Israeli-PLO pact was signed in September 1993, only about $200 million has been delivered to the PLO, according to Mr. Abdallah.

The donors demand accounting for the money, and "we shouldn't avoid it," said Mr. Abdallah. "We're not a resistance movement any more that justifies secrecy and confidentiality. We are building a nation and using others' money, and we should report to them."

The fledgling Palestinian authority also has disappointed Palestinians who had boasted that this would be the most democratic of any Arab government. The early signs are discouraging:

* The authorities have made mass arrests of political opponents.

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* They have detained and imprisoned Palestinians with no charges, no warrants, and no recourse to a legal system.

* They have tried to put curbs on political organizations, requiring permits for meetings and telling bus companies to get permission for transporting political groups.

* The Voice of Palestine, the Palestinians' first radio station, is now widely dismissed as a sycophantic Arafat mouthpiece similar to many other government stations in Arab regimes.

* Press freedoms are suppressed. An-Nahar was closed for five weeks in July when it was too enthusiastic about the Jordan-Israel peace agreement for Mr. Arafat's taste. Three Arabic papers and a Hebrew paper were confiscated for five days in November for reporting on a rally by the rival fundamentalist Hamas. And journalists get the hint: Criticism of Mr. Arafat is now muted or gone entirely from the Arab press.

* Mr. Arafat canceled elections to local offices of Fatah, the mainstream PLO faction, after November balloting in Ramallah rejected his hand-picked candidates. Younger Fatah members, however, are insisting on going ahead with other elections.

* Most distressing to Palestinians, the authority police opened fire on Hamas protesters last month in an incident reminiscent of the worst clashes with Israeli soldiers. Thirteen people were killed.

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"Everyone is discouraged, disappointed with Arafat," said one West Bank businessman, who asked not to be named. "He has done nothing, and I don't think it's going to get better."

Like dictators in many Arab regimes, Mr. Arafat has set up various "security" organizations to keep tabs on people and on each other. There are at least 10,000 security personnel in the Gaza Strip and autonomous West Bank town of Jericho.

"Why do we need so many policemen and security?" wonders Ghazi Abu-Jayyab, a leader of an opposition party, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine in Gaza. "Instead of letting them build our country and letting them clean streets and walls and build things, they give them Kalashnikovs."

Authority figures argue that "security" must be established before investors, donor countries or businessmen can improve the economy.

Jawwad Mahdi, a contractor and textile manufacturer, said Mr. Arafat "has been forced by Israel to stay too busy with security, and not busy enough with the economy."

But he is not discouraged. He is building a 14-story building in Gaza City, one of about 40 apartment and office high-rises going up in the Gaza Strip.

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More such initiative is needed, argued Mr. Abu Libdeh, the authority official.

"There are things that we should be doing without donor countries," he noted. "At the entrance of Gaza, there's a big lake of sewage. If we can't even clean up a lake of sewage ourselves, how can we build autonomy?"



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