Pity the Palestinian Street Actors

Some masked men broke Ramallah's routine on Monday afternoon. They made their way through the crowded streets shooting bursts of gunfire in the air, leaflets flying from their hands.

Some masked men broke Ramallah's routine on Monday afternoon. They appeared from nowhere in the center of town, dressed in black from head to toe, one even wearing a winter coat and three or four of them bearing rifles. They made their way through the crowded streets shooting bursts of gunfire in the air, leaflets flying from their hands.

There was no doubt who they were - it was an Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades performance from Fatah. Considering IDF jeeps routinely go in and out of the city, it was an unusual sight.

At first glance, the show by the armed men could appear frightening, threatening. On second thought however, there was something sad and pathetic about the display. This was a lone appearance by armed, anonymous men in the middle of the street that was trying to conduct a normal life in abnormal conditions. In a nutshell it told the tale of how the Palestinian government has neglected an entire generation of youth from 1994 to 2000, in particular the Fatah loyalists, and especially those from the refugee camps and the working class and poor neighborhoods of the cities.

The white leaflets peppering the black asphalt were of course about the latest crisis in the Muqata compound - the failed attempt to send 18 wanted Fatah men to Jericho or Gaza, in the hope of ending the Israeli siege on Arafat in the compound.

The official Palestinian version of the chain of events in the crisis is that out of concern for the safety and security of the wanted men "whom Israel is hunting despite the hudna," they are being held in a room next to Arafat's in the Muqata. The issue of their transfer to Gaza or Jericho, it is said, is connected to negotiations with Israel over all the wanted men, and not only them.

From phone conversations the wanted men had with journalists and friends, another picture emerges. At the weekend they were called urgently to the Muqata - they aren't all really "in" the Muqata all the time - because of reports of Israeli intentions to capture them. They were put into one room, disarmed, and then locked inside.

Later, they say, Palestinian security officers told them to choose between going to Gaza or Jericho. They refused, and said they would start a hunger strike and then began making phone calls, issuing warnings and threats in every direction.

The leaflet, also full of threats, relieves Yasser Arafat of any responsibility for the "plot" as they called their jailing in the Muqata. The leaflet showers Arafat with praise, blaming the "Palestinian security apparatus" - from which some of them get salaries or used to get salaries - and "mercenaries of the Palestinian leadership" who, to protect "their private interests" are cooperating with the occupation.

Did the masked men come out of the Muqata or were these their friends and relatives, representing the insulted people to the regime they had supported? That regime always budgeted enormous sums for the security services and was miserly with the education budget.

Thus it failed to compensate the younger generation, especially those in the refugee camps and the poor neighborhoods, for the years of schooling they lost during the first intifada's curfews, strikes and arrests, by providing them with vocational training or some form of professional education.

Instead many youth became policemen and security officers. Their role, declared or not, was to use their weapons, uniforms and arrests to protect the status of Fatah and the PA and it served a number of goals. In a society suffering from deep unemployment in 1994-1995, following the closure of the Israeli market to Palestinian workers, the jobs guaranteed a minimum income to many families.

Since the source of employment and income was the PA, it strengthened the material dependence of many families on "father" Arafat, head of the authority. Thus an entire stratum in society guaranteed loyalty for Oslo, which Arafat backed.

When it appeared Arafat was accepting most of Israeli dictates in the negotiations for the interim period - leaving the settlements in place with construction allowed, dividing the West Bank into areas A, B, and C - the army of police loyal to him personally guaranteed that popular protests did not deviate from acceptable norms and did not turn on the PA itself.

They jealously watched how other youths of their age, the sons and daughters of senior PA officials and those of the middle and upper middle classes, built near normal lives based on schools and business and foreign trips and fun.

They are part of the frustrated public from which they emerged and part of the Fatah that was afraid of losing its authority if it did not join the challenge of the first stones thrown in September-October 2000.

The same leaders that did not worry about their future in the Oslo years allowed them in the new intifada to be dragged into a struggle that turned into a blind worship of the power of the gun.