Arafat frees Hamas leaders, encourages opponents


THE Palestinian president, Mr Yasser Arafat, yesterday freed from detention five leaders of the Islamist Hamas opposition movement. He also issued licences for Hamas to form a political party and publish a newspaper in an effort to create a credible opposition in the self rule areas.

The Palsestinian opposition has been in disarray as a consequence of two decisions. The first was the ill advised boycott of the Palestinian elections, a decision taken by the members of the Damascus based 10 faction opposition alliance which includes the secular left wing Popular and Democratic Fronts as well as the Islamist Hamas and Islamic Jihad movements.

The boycott proved once again the truth of the French saying "He who is absent is always wrong". Some 70 per cent of the Palestinian electorate ignored the boycott appeal and gave Mr Arafat's party 68 of the 88 seats on the legislative council.

The boycott also caused dissension within opposition groups, pitting exiled leaders against more pragmatic activists in the West Bank and Gaza. Local activists in both Hamas and the Popular Front initially stood for election but were ordered to stand down.

After the poll, a number of those activists spoke of creating new leaderships more responsive to developments. Such dissent has weakened the already fragmented rejectionist front.

The second decision that led to opposition disarray was a timely one taken by the Israeli Prime Minister, Mr Shimon Peres. He announced on election day that all members of the PLO's parliament in exile - the Palestinian National Council (PNC) would be permitted to return to Palestinian self rule areas to attend an April meeting to remove provisions of the PLO charter calling for the destruction of Israel.

Mr Naif Hawatmeh, head of the Democratic Front, promptly announced his intention to return, as did the 90 year old former president of the PNC, Sheikh Abdel Hamid Sayeh, an outspoken critic of Mr Arafat, who has been granted special permission to return to East Jerusalem. Dr George Habash, of the Popular Front, the party ranking third in popularity in the territories, has rejected the offer.

An opposition in disarray cannot deny Mr Arafat the two thirds vote in the 500 member PNC required to amend the charter.

The lack of a viable opposition has weakened the Palestinian bargaining position in negotiations with Israel. It means there are not the same constraints on Mr Arafat as right wing opponents impose on Mr Peres.

The opposition might be able to recoup some of its losses by winning a respectable number of seats in Palestinian municipal elections scheduled in April, although militants have threatened to disrupt the poll, by staging attacks against Israelis.

Denied violence as an option, the opposition has no choice but to accept Mr Arafat's invitation to join the political process.