RAMALLAH, WEST BANK — RAMALLAH, West Bank -- Yasser Arafat was striding across the parking lot of his ruined compound with a confident smile, flanked by aides wearing suits and ties and by guards dressed in green fatigues and brandishing machine guns.
There he was, the one-time revolutionary now under siege. The dust blowing off the piles of rubble from Israeli army raids added to the appearance that this was a person bravely resisting the forces arrayed against him.
After more than three years of bitter fighting with Israel, however, the people of the West Bank and Gaza Strip are increasingly disillusioned with Arafat and the government he leads, the Palestinian Authority. The forces arrayed against him include many of the people who had looked to him as the person who could best help them gain an independent Palestinian state.
The Palestinian Authority is the only formal government they have been able to claim as their own, but many Palestinians now consider it an experiment that failed its most basic tests -- keeping its citizens safe and allowing them to better their lives.
Instead of expanding its power beyond the few cities it controlled when it came into existence a decade ago, the authority's reach has shriveled while Israel's has grown.
That 1 million students attend schools run by the authority is hailed as an achievement, and it is perhaps the authority's greatest accomplishment. There are courts but no jails. Motorists are required to have licenses, but there is no way to enforce traffic regulations or any others. Police officers can't write a parking ticket, much less carry a gun.
A deadly three-year uprising against Israel by Palestinian militias, some supported or encouraged by Arafat, has not produced any tangible victories. Instead of loosening Israel's hold on the West Bank and Gaza, the militant groups have undercut Palestinian officials and created a lawless society in which citizens complain more about the armed gangs than Israeli soldiers.
Israel's government, meanwhile, is talking of a unilateral disengagement plan that would set provisional borders for a Palestinian state on Israel's terms. The European Union, usually sympathetic to the Palestinians, has joined the United States in backing the disengagement plan, and Egypt, too, is holding talks with Israel about the future of Gaza.
Also, a growing number of Palestinian regard Arafat as a barrier to reforms. "There is one president, Mr. Arafat," said a member of the Palestinian Parliament who speaks regularly with Arafat. "Mr. Arafat is the obstacle."
Khaled Yousef is a 35-year-old house painter who used to work in Israel, where he earned enough to support his wife and eight children. After Israel barred most Palestinian workers from entering Israel, in late 2000, Yousef joined the ballooning ranks of the unemployed.
On May Day, he was among a crowd of demonstrators outside Arafat headquarters here, and Yousef watched him emerge from his battered office, step through a sand-bagged doorway and walk briskly across the parking lot to greet the crowd.
But the demonstration against Israel's policies was an exercise in futility.
"What can the Palestinian Authority do without money?" Yousef said. "Look, before the uprising, Palestinians who worked in Israel made a lot of money and were held in esteem, and the people who worked for the authority were badly paid. Now it is the opposite. The authority doesn't help people. And if they could help, they would offer so little that it wouldn't make a difference anyway."
While Yousef marched toward Arafat, another group made its point by marching away from Arafat. Their leader was Mustafa Barghouti, a physician who runs a medical relief program as part of a nongovernmental agency. He is a leading advocate for Palestinian elections.
Barghouti said he chose his route to send a message that Arafat is not the only symbol for the Palestinian cause. "It's time the world knows about the Palestinians," he said, "and not just about Yasser Arafat."
Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon "has managed to eliminate most of the authority," he said. "It still exists -- education works, some social and health programs work -- but if you talk about control, that does not exist.
"The Palestinian Authority is a name without content," he said. "We keep it because it benefits the people who are in charge. To the rest of the people, the authority really doesn't matter."
Qadura Faris, a senior member of Arafat's Fatah Party, acknowledges that the Palestinian leadership has no vision for obtaining a peaceful future and lacks the ability to govern. "The most basic needs cannot be filled, like administration, rehabilitation and security," he said. "The judiciary and the police -- they are doing nothing."
"Is it possible that the Palestinian council can vote to unify all the security forces and implement that order?" he asked, pausing before answering, "No."
Hasan Abu-Libdeh, chief of staff for Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia, known as Abu Ala, maintains that the Palestinian Authority is more engaged than it seems. "We are not spectators," he said. "But we are incapable of reversing these facts that Israel is creating. Our power is based on the legitimacy of our cause and the backing of our sponsors in the peace process. America is siding almost entirely with Israel, and what Israel is doing now won't lead to long-lasting arrangements."
"Arafat is the symbol of our revolution," he continued. "We might not agree with some of his management practices, but he is still our leader.
"Some of the old guard were revolutionaries for 40 years. Suddenly they became technocrats. It is a sad price that we had to pay. We didn't accomplish a lot over the years, but we are trying."
The Palestinian Authority exists, its critics say, only because it manages to pay the salaries of its 140,000 workers, thanks largely to the contributions of $1.3 billion from donor countries over the past three years.
Jon Alterman, who directs the Middle East program of the Center of Strategic and International Studies in Washington, said the Palestinian Authority remains relevant because "it is the only organized force to advocate for Palestinian claims."
"The Palestinian Authority decided not to deliver security as a way of increasing their bargaining position, and you could argue that because of that, they are no longer relevant," said Alterman, who worked on the U.S. State Department's Middle East policy staff in 2001 and 2002. "The other way to look at it is that their plight is the consequence of an Israeli policy to destroy the Palestinian leadership in the hopes of having it replaced with something more flexible. The truth is probably somewhere in between."
Now, it is a waiting game.
"A lot of people are waiting for Arafat to die," Alterman said. "A lot of people on the Arab side are waiting for Sharon to go. A lot of people on both sides are marking time with the assumption that anything that happens in the meantime can be undone later if need be."