THE FIRST EXECUTIONS carried out by Yasser Arafat's Palestinian National Authority have stirred vastly different reactions on each side of the Arab-Israeli divide.
Israeli Cabinet Secretary Danny Naveh said Arafat's government put itself "in the category of the same dark states" as other dictatorships that can conduct a trial, convict two killers and put them before a firing squad - all in the space of three days."This proves why a government headed by Benjamin Netanyahu will never agree to allow these methods employed in Gaza to be used in Jerusalem, why we will never agree to a Palestinian state with Jerusalem as its capital," said Naveh.
Palestinians, on the other hand, applauded the swift justice, hoping it will finally end the reign of terror by Arafat's security men. Eleven Palestinian police agencies operate in the West Bank and Gaza, often with impunity, and the few officers actually charged with killing or mistreating the public always seem to escape punishment.
In this case, both the victims and their killers were security men. Raed and Mohammed Abu Sultan, brother policemen, were executed for killing two other security men in what a military judge called "an orgy of thuggery" at a wedding party. The motive was a family feud.
Cynics point out that Arafat would never have upheld the death sentences if one of the victims, Majdi al Khalidi, had not been a ranking official in his own Fatah faction. Arafat, who has the final say on capital punishment, had previously commuted all death sentences to life imprisonment since the advent of Palestinian self-rule in 1994.
The shooting Sunday of the Abu Sultan brothers by firing squads were the first "legal" executions by the PNA, but they were by no means the first deaths attributed to the extra-legal thuggery of Ara-fat's security agents.
At least 20 Palestinians have died in police custody over the past four years, others have "disappeared" and the security services are widely accused of torture and other human rights abuses in Palestinian jails. Their victims include both political opponents of Arafat and Islamic militants rounded up to appease Israel's security con-cerns.
Amnesty International's 1998 report says more than 400 suspected opponents of the PNA were arrested last year, 300 of them supporters of Hamas and other Islamic groups jailed after suicide bombings in Israel in March, July and September. Most were released after several months in detention but 140 remained in prison at the end of the year.
Another 115 political prisoners arrested in previous years remained in detention without charge or trial. Only 30 Palestinians were tried by State Security Courts, and Amnesty characterized those trials as "grossly unfair."
Although Israel maintains that Arafat is not doing enough to contain terrorism, it secretly applauds his roundups of Islamic militants. But it cites his arrest and harassment of other political opponents as proof that he is just another Arab dictator who would make a bad neighbor.
A group of Palestinian lawmakers who were recently beaten up by West Bank security men agree that Arafat's high-handed ways diminish the credibility of their elected legislature and make it more difficult to convince Israel that the Palestinians are ready for statehood.
"We need a strong council if we are ever to be taken seriously by Israel," said one. "This sent the wrong message."
Arafat dismayed many in the 88-member National Council recently when he announced a Cabinet reshuffle that kept ministers they had wanted sacked for corruption. Lawmakers had been pressing for change since a 1997 auditor's report found that $350 million from a Cabinet budget of $880 million had gone astray, siphoned off for the personal use of corrupt min-is-ters.
Two Cabinet members, Hanan Ashrawi and Abdel-Jawad Saleh quit in disgust. Ashrawi gained international acclaim as Palestinian spokeswoman at the Madrid peace talks. Saleh, who was agriculture minister in Arafat's old Cabinet, called the reshuffle a "slap in the face" for democracy and said it would "institutionalize corruption" in the PNA.
Ordinary Palestinians are equally disillusioned. Public opinion polls indicate that more than two-thirds view their government as corrupt, their police as brutal and Arafat's chances of delivering statehood as very slim. Fewer than 45 percent would vote for him again.