JERUSALEM (AP) – One of the most popular leaders of the Palestinian uprising issued a prison-cell appeal yesterday for high-level change in the Palestinian Authority – the first time Marwan Barghouti has openly challenged Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.

The call came as Arafat’s battered security services made their first reported arrests of Palestinian militants in months.

A 95-year-old Palestinian great-grandmother was killed, meanwhile, when Israeli troops fired on a taxi on a road closed by the military, becoming the oldest known victim in more than two years of fighting.

Barghouti is one of the Palestinians’ most popular leaders, having managed to maintain grass-roots appeal and avoid the stain of corruption that has tainted many of Arafat’s supporters. His call for new leadership seemed to reflect Arafat’s falling popularity among his people, as prominent Palestinians begin to speak out openly against the Palestinian leader’s handling of the two-year conflict with Israel.

Barghouti did not mention Arafat by name in his written response to questions from The Associated Press, presented to Barghouti in prison by his lawyer, Khader Shkirat.

“It is time for many of the Palestinian leaders and officials to leave their positions after failing in their roles and responsibilities in this decisive battle,” Barghouti said, referring to the Palestinian uprising. “This should be done in a democratic and legal way as soon as possible.”

Israeli Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz also called on the Palestinians to clean house.

“Above all, the current leadership must be cleared off the stage of history,” he told a conference on national security near Tel Aviv.

Though some leaders have criticized the armed attacks on Israelis as harmful to the Palestinian cause, Barghouti backed violent elements of the uprising. However, until the fighting broke out in September 2000, he was a staunch advocate of peace talks with Israel.

Barghouti was arrested during Israel’s military offensive in the West Bank in April and is on trial for attacks that killed 26 Israelis. His imprisonment has heightened his popularity among Palestinians, with surveys placing him second only to Arafat.

Israel and the United States have for months been calling for a change in the Palestinian leadership. Arafat set elections for Jan. 20, but officials say it’s unlikely they will be held on schedule because Israel is occupying most of the Palestinian population centers. In any case, Arafat appears to have no serious challengers.

Arafat also has been under pressure to crack down on militants, but Palestinian officials say Israel’s occupation in the West Bank and its strikes against their security services have made that close to impossible.

In the first sign of a possible change, the militant Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine said seven of its members were arrested by Palestinian intelligence services in Gaza.

Among them was Isam Abu Daka, a top leader in Khan Younis who also is wanted by Israel. Israeli forces demolished his house March 6 and arrested seven of his brothers.

The Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine called on the Palestinian Authority to release the seven, saying the arrests would harm Palestinian unity.

In the West Bank, Fatima Mohammed Hassan, 95, was killed returning home from a shopping trip when the minibus she was riding in reached a checkpoint on the outskirts of Ramallah, according to witnesses and family.

She died from a single bullet wound in the back, said Mohammed Wahdan, a doctor at Ramallah’s hospital.

An Israeli military source said a Palestinian vehicle was moving fast on a road closed to Palestinians and soldiers fired warning shots into the air. When it didn’t stop, the soldiers fired at the wheels, the source said, adding that he had no information on casualties.

About 10 relatives surrounded the ambulance carrying Hassan’s body when it arrived at the hospital. One daughter, Aisha, 58, leaned over the stretcher to kiss her dead mother’s face, then started crying.

“It is a big loss for us,” she said. “She was old, but this is not the way to end her life.”

The Palestine Monitor, a group that tracks Palestinian casualties, said Hassan is the oldest Palestinian to be killed in the fighting.

Since Israeli-Palestinian violence broke out in September 2000, 1,951 people have been killed on the Palestinian side and 684 on the Israeli side.

The oldest known Israeli victims were Hannah Rogen and Sarah Levy-Hoffman, both 89. They were among 29 people killed by a suicide bomber at a seaside hotel in Netanya on March 27.

In Hebron, the only West Bank city where Jewish settlers and Palestinians live in close proximity, the military told Palestinian residents dozens of houses along a route where Israelis were ambushed Nov. 16 would be destroyed or taken over by the army. The warrants said the seizures were meant “to prevent terror attacks and attacks against civilians and army troops.”

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published.