Leading Palestinians resign in protest at Arafat's refusal to introduce real reforms


Dr Hanan Ashrawi, the Palestinians' most successful spokesperson on the international scene, resigned yesterday from the cabinet of the Palestinian President, Mr Yasser Arafat. Her resignation took place only 26 hours after she was shifted from Higher Education to Tourism, in Mr Arafat's first cabinet reshuffle since he established his first government after the first-ever Palestinian general election in January 1996.

While Dr Ashrawi, an effective minister in the education sphere, was known to be unhappy about exchanging ministries, she made it clear in a press conference yesterday that her fundamental objection was to Mr Arafat's refusal to reform his cabinet so it could meet the serious challenges faced by the Palestinian people. Although Mr Arafat made 10 new cabinet appointments he sacked no ministers, transferred Dr Ashrawi and shifted three with portfolios to positions as ministers of state without portfolio. Three ministers cited a year ago for corruption and mismanagement by the Legislative Council were retained by a defiant Mr Arafat.

Dr Ashrawi summed up her objections to the exercise, dubbed the "non-reshuffle", stating: "I believe when people called for change they did not ask for additions. They asked for change in the status quo, but what we see now is maintaining what existed and adding people to it."

Yesterday she announced that she had decided not to accept the new appointment. "Being part of this new formation will not achieve anything. The one way in which we can face [our] problems and the ongoing crisis in the peace process is by building real, accountable political institutions. This has not happened."

Dr Ashrawi first achieved a global reputation as a formidable spokesperson at the international peace conference at Madrid in October 1991. Born in 1948 to a Christian family living in Jerusalem, she studied at the American University of Beirut, where she joined Mr Arafat's Fatah movement. She took an active part in the Palestinian peace movement and served as commissioner of human rights before standing for election to the 88-seat Palestinian National Council, securing the highest number of votes in the Jerusalem constituency. By resigning, she has dealt a hard blow to the external credibility of Mr Arafat's government. She continues to hold a seat in the council.

Two of the three ministers who lost their portfolios also tendered formal resignations. Mr Abdul Jawad Saleh, the urbane, whitehaired minister of agriculture, charged Mr. Arafat with "rewarding corrupt ministers and punishing efficient ministers. This move [has] institutionalised corruption and exacerbated the frustration of the Palestinian people." The third person to resign was Mr Bashir Barghouti, an independent who was retained as minister of industry for over a year after suffering a stroke which partially paralysed him and deprived him of speech. Although these key resignations reduce his credibility, Mr Arafat is expected to win a vote of confidence tomorrow as legislators from his disillusioned but loyal Fatah movement hold a majority of seats, and 24 of the 31 ministers in his new cabinet are members of the council.