Fear Underlies Palestinian Worry: It's the First Time a Rais Is Dying on Us'

When the news of Yasser Arafat's illness broke last week, many in the West Bank were worried about the events to come. The rais's collapse was received with sorrow, mingled with fear and concern.

One resident was especially afraid of the Fatah militant groups, which are fighting among themselves and vying for power with the official institutions.

After more than a week, her fears have been allayed. "It was quiet here," she says, in response to a question yesterday. "The gunmen did not try to demonstrate their feelings for Arafat with shooting in the air or closing down shops."

In general she believes that the wanted gunmen, who have been living almost underground for the last four years, are displaying responsibility as a time like this demands.

In Tul Karm, by comparison, a group of Fatah gunmen tried to be "all angry and mournful and prove they exist," a resident says cynically

When the Israeli media rushed to declare Arafat dead, he says, fewer than 10 masked gunmen headed for the center of Tul Karm. They raised their rifles in the air, fired volleys and shouted, trying to force merchants to shut their stores. A few women and children were alarmed, but there were too many people in the street who wanted to live normally - to go out of their houses, buy gifts for the approaching holiday, spend time with family, he says.

The militants were helped by a sudden power failure, a common occurrence in the city. But when the power supply was resumed, the gunmen disappeared. The governor, understanding that people object to the militants' actions, ordered the police to announce on megaphones that everything was open as usual. All the shops reopened, and the streets filled with people.

The Al-Aqsa Brigades in Jenin would have taken to the streets long ago to express their grief over Arafat's condition, but the Israel Defense Forces operation in the city is keeping them in hiding, says a resident.

The army has seized several houses and turned them into military outposts, says the woman in Jenin. She mentions a little boy of 13 who was killed. "The kids confronted the soldiers, threw stones as usual. The soldiers opened fire, as usual."

A friend of the family complains that "Arafat's illness and the elections in the United States have obliterated any media interest in Jenin. Nobody knows that every day somebody gets killed here. Israeli soldiers walk in the streets at night, so people are afraid to leave their homes."

In addition, people are afraid of what might happen to them after Arafat's death. "The clerks are afraid of not getting paid, the merchants fear their shops would be ordered shut for mourning. Parents are afraid they will not be able to buy things they promised their children," she says.

A Tul Karm resident says that in his town people are not terribly sorry about the passing of Arafat, but they are afraid of what will happen. Some say Arafat was the one best suited to rule us."

A Fatah man from the Deheishe refugee camp tries to calm them down. "Everyone in the camp is sorry about the demise of Arafat as a symbol and a leader, regardless of political affiliation. Everyone identifies with him. This is the first time that a rais is dying on us. The muezzin prayed for his health. But ordinary people understand that this is his end. It hurts, but we are a nation used to living with pain. Arafat was always above the institutions. Now, with his demise, we must have elections and revive institutions that were perhaps paralyzed," he says.

"Everyone understands that elections is the only way to avoid friction and intervention of foreign powers, especially Israel," he says.

A Nablus resident says people have conflicting emotions. "They are sad for Arafat the man, but since he was at the head of the Palestinian Authority and the corruption, they say his death came from Allah."

She adds that people are fearful about the future. "People think that Arafat did not make concessions, but those after him will."

"Our sacrifice will have been in vain," someone says. But she answers: "Even with Arafat alive, our sacrifice was in vain. He is responsible for the fact that we, as civilians, had to face the Israeli army, and the whole world treated us as though we were an army. We paid a dear price with Arafat alive - and in power."