Opponent of Arafat is denied access to the media


A SOCIAL worker, Ms Samiha Khalil, the only candidate standing against Mr Yasser Arafat for the presidency of the Palestinian National Council in this month's election may have little chance before her campaign can even begin, writes David Horovitz from Jerusalem.

Ms Khalil (72) is hardly a serious challenger to Mr Arafat, who has steered the Palestinians through the phased peace process that culminates on January 20th with elections in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

But that is beside the point. The sole individual willing to take on Mr Arafat criticising him for failing to secure the release of all Palestinian prisoners from Israeli jails and criticising the Israelis for the partial nature of their withdrawal from occupied territory is being denied the opportunity to win any support. The Arafat controlled Palestinian media are in fact completely ignoring her.

Ms Khalil, a former activist in the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine, held a press conference in Ramallah, north of Jerusalem, last week. But though she received coverage in the Israeli Hebrew and Arabic media, Palestinian television and radio made no mention of the conference or, indeed, of her candidacy.

As observers start to arrive in advance of the poll, the pervasive influence of Mr Arafat on the supposedly free and democratic voting progress is becoming an increasing concern. And a far more formidable woman opponent of Mr Arafat's, his former spokeswoman. Dr Hanan Ashrawi, is also feeling the impact.

Dr Ashrawi who rejected a ministerial position on Mr Arafat's appointed Palestinian Authority last year, is campaigning for a seat on the 89 member Palestinian National Council. But facing more than 60 other candidates in a West Bank district that has been allocated seven seats, she is fighting an uphill battle.

The PLO chairman is not having everything his own way, however. Al least 20 Islamic candidates are standing for council seats, including five linked to the Hamas group. Some stand a fair chance of winning in the more supportive atmosphere of the Gaza Strip.

Election monitors are also indicating a readiness to call Mr Arafat into line. Mr Carl Lidbom who heads a 300 strong EU observer group, warned Mr Arafat yesterday over some inequitable allocation of council seats, and over the shortening of the official election campaign which will now last only two weeks.