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GAZA `BOSS’ RELEGATED TO SIDELINES

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Once he was one of the most feared and respected men in Gaza. Today, however, Sufian Abu Zeidah symbolizes those aimless Palestinians who have been relegated to the sidelines in Yasser Arafat's administration.

Abu Zeidah, 34, rose from the gutters of the sprawling Jabaliya refugee camp outside Gaza City to become one of the leaders of the Palestinian resistance against Israeli occupation.It was from Jabaliya that the six-year-long uprising known as the intifada was launched, with Abu Zaida as one of its organizers.

Imprisoned first in the early 1980s by the Israelis, released, then imprisoned again shortly after the outbreak of the intifada, Abu Zeidah was said to have directed operations even from inside his prison cell.

Days after being released from jail last year, he was made head of Fatah operations in Gaza. This didn't last long.

Today, he's a prisoner of a different sort, trapped in a dead-end office he shares with his secretary and a messenger in an obscure corner of the new Palestinian Authority's headquarters.

The man who once persuaded young Palestinians to stand up to heavily armed Israeli soldiers (more than 1,500 died in the intifada) now spends his days examining maps in the Palestinian Ministry of Planning and International Cooperation.

A recent unscheduled visit to his office found Abu Zeidah at his seat, his desk top empty except for a colorful plastic Slinky toy.

This was just a few days after Palestinian police shot dead 14 Palestinian demonstrators in Gaza, and at a time when the Palestinian Authority was struggling to assert its control of the streets that Abu Zeidah once ruled.

These days, the former militant's only claim to fame is through his frequent appearances as a commentator on Israeli television, serving the people who once tortured him and against whom he had fought for so long. His Hebrew is flawless, learned during 12 years in Israeli jails, and his good looks and sparkling eyes are now accentuated by well-made suits and colorful neckties.

He has been given the title of director-general of the Israeli affairs department, but when he dutifully answers the questions of the Israeli news anchor in Tel Aviv, it's hard to tell where the role of Palestinian representative leaves off and Israeli reporter begins.

Certainly, when Abu Zeidah walks down the streets of Gaza today, he's pointed out as a TV star, not as a guerrilla leader.

"It's hard to believe," said one disillusioned Palestinian after a recent visit to his office. "This guy used to be the boss."

Like many Palestinians, Abu Zeidah has been virtually ignored by a new authority that's dominated by Arafat and his coterie of imported cronies.

The Fatah network Abu Zeidah and his friends built in the camps of Gaza has been overshadowed by the international contacts Arafat has established, and people such as Abu Zeidah can't stack up against the likes of the man who now is his boss as planning minister, Nabil Shaath, the wealthy, Cairo-based head of a construction company.

Some young Gaza leaders, such as Sami Abu Samhadani, who founded the Fatah Hawks militia, chose to walk away from it all.

Samhadani, who was linked to the most violent armed attacks in the Gaza Strip until Arafat's arrival in July, has maintained a low profile in Rafah at the southern end of the strip, as far from Arafat as he could get.

Nevertheless, it was to men such as Samhadani that Arafat turned last week when he wanted to mount a show of force to intimidate his challengers from the militant Islamic movement Hamas. Samhadani and hundreds of his Hawks happily marched through Gaza's streets again, firing their guns in support of their leader.

Abu Zeidah's role in all this was to appear on television and soothe Israelis who were worried that Arafat was losing control.

When an estimated 10,000 to 20,000 Hamas supporters rallied peacefully this past weekend in Gaza in their own show of force, Abu Zeidah was again on Israeli TV assuring viewers that there was no cause for alarm and that Arafat had everything under control.

There's little conviction behind the words. Whatever they say, Palestinians like Sufian Abu Zeidah are worried that control of Gaza is slipping away; that the better days they fought for will never materialize.