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Arafat calls for change, reform

By SAUD ABU RAMADAN

GAZA, May 15 (UPI) -- Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat on Wednesday called for change and reform of the Palestinian Authority and new elections, and again denounced armed attacks that target Israeli civilians.

In a speech to the Palestinian Legislative Council, Arafat said the Palestinians rejected "all kinds of operations that target Israeli civilians -- as well as what our Palestinian civilians are subjected to, like what happened in Jenin."

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This was a reference to Palestinian suicide bombers on the one hand, and the Israeli incursion into the Palestinian refugee camp in the West Bank town of Jenin on the other.

Arafat was speaking in Ramallah, where the chairman of the Palestinian Authority, the government of the West Bank and Gaza, was bottled up by Israeli tanks in his headquarters for more than two months.

Saying it was "the time for change and reform," Arafat added that Palestinians should immediately start "quick preparations" for Palestinian elections -- without mentioning a target date.

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Palestinian officials said the speech was an attempt by Arafat to demonstrate to the international community there was the political will to fulfill the Bush administration's conditions for reviving peace efforts in the region.

Recently, President Bush and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon jointly called on Arafat to reform the Palestinian Authority, root out corruption, cut down on cronyism, reform the justice system, and restructure the Palestinian security apparatus.

Some officials of Arafat's own Fatah movement also demanded Arafat appoint a prime minister who would assume some of the authority now held solely by the veteran Palestinian leader.

"We are now badly in need of re-evaluating our policies and our plans in order to repair the errors, and correct our progress and our struggle towards national independence," Arafat said.

Referring to the suicide bombs that have caused panic and devastation among Israeli civilians, he said, "Palestinian and Arab public opinion have now become convinced that these operations will not serve our interests and goals and yet they antagonize large segments of the international community."

Arafat said that he "took responsibility for any mistakes the Palestinian leadership has made" and said they must be rectified. Observers said Arafat's autocratic control over the Palestinian territories made it difficult for him to make a convincing case that others may have been responsible.

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The speech was the clearest sign so far that Arafat felt he needed to be seen advocating change in the Palestinian leadership. Besides international pressure, he was reacting to the mixed reception he has received since his release from Ramallah last week. Crowds at the Jenin gather ed ahead of a proposed visit by Arafat to jeer the Palestinian leader rather than cheer him -- a new experience for Arafat.

The leadership of the Islamic Hamas was critical of Arafat's speech and doubted he was serious about reforming the PA as soon as possible.

"Arafat can not make any reforms before he gets the approval and the permission of the Zionist side (Israel)," said Hamas spokesman in Gaza, Abdel Aziz Ranteesi. "As long as Arafat is still committed to the dead Oslo agreements, he can not make reforms into the Palestinian Authority without Israel's permission."

Arafat told the law-makers that he was not giving up on the search for peace with Israel, despite Israel's recent military offensive into Palestinian controlled areas.

"Peace has always been our strategic option, and we will never abandon that option. Peace gives common interest to both peoples, Palestinians and Israelis," Arafat said.

Arafat's speech coincided with the Al-Nakba Day, the anniversary of the founding of the state of Israel in 1948, which is marked by Arabs as a day of mourning.

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This year, however, the anniversary was noted with only a few hundred Palestinian refugees who marched the narrow streets of Shatti refugee camp, west of Gaza City and until they reached the area's headquarters of the United Nations.

They waved Palestinian flags, and held banners saying that the right of return of Palestinian refugees who left in 1948 had been legalized by the world, the United Nations and the Security Council, and "we would never give up struggling for our right of return."

It was a normal working day, contrary to what had been expected on Wednesday, where usually thousands march the streets, rallies were in the refugee camps and different Palestinian political leaders used to give speeches.

"This date, or Al Nakba anniversary is still a black day in the history of the Palestinian people," said Haj Ateya Obeid, representative of Palestinian refugees that came from Ashkelon in 1948.

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