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Arafat's Last Stand - Again?

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by Lamis Andon
Is it the beginning of a genuine reform movement, or a destructive power struggle within a multi-headed and inflated security apparatus on the eve of an anticipated - but far from certain - Israeli pull-out from the Gaza Strip? Or is it a clever takeover attempt by former Security Chief Mohamed Dahlan, who has been cited as “the favorite candidate” by the Israeli intelligence and media, to assert his power as the strongest man in Gaza?

Available information includes elements of all these scenarios, producing a reform movement entangled within a vicious power struggle between security war lords jockeying for position, either through direct support from Arafat or by positioning themselves for the post-Arafat era. A genuine evolving reform movement, meanwhile, risks being squashed, or even reduced to empty slogans.

Under constant USA and Israeli pressure, Arafat?s position is weakening, but Dahlan?s dubious admirers rule him out as any replacement.

Under constant USA and Israeli pressure, Arafat?s position is weakening, but Dahlan?s dubious admirers rule him out as any replacement.

PLO factions from the main body of Fatah (leftist groups) joined by Hamas and Islamic Jihad have so far refused to become embroiled in the internal power struggle of the security apparatus, focusing instead on channeling the discontent into the creation of a nationalist reformist platform. Indeed the call, by thirteen factions, for the immediate formation of a collective leadership, or national coalition government, strongly suggests a serious attempt to prevent the polarization within the security establishment extending to Palestinian society.

But as positive as the move by the Palestinian factions and Palestinian leaders is, the ensuing power struggle cannot be easily contained, particularly since the “reforms” as suggested by the USA and Israel have already led to a dangerous polarization within the security apparatus, a situation that could still result in deadly clashes.

The most confusing and dangerous aspect of the ongoing situation is that the demands for “reforms” have become the moving force behind the realization of various goals - from the creation of a Palestinian security force that functions as a proxy occupation police force; to the settling of individual scores; to the amassing of power by various politicians and security leaders; to the substitution of Arafat with a leader more acquiescent to Israeli and American demands.

Subsequently Arafat - besieged, and paranoid about declared attempts to remove him - has tried to control the process of “reform” to maintain his power. Aware that “security reform” - as declared by the USA , Israel and some Arab governments - is a code word for rendering him irrelevant, he has been trying to accommodate the demands for “streamlining” the security organs by planting his loyalists.

Dahlan, who retains a strong influence in his former domain of Preventive Security in Gaza , spoiled Arafat’s plan by initiating the recent moves - although it is difficult to claim that he was personally behind the brief kidnapping of the former public security chief, Ghazi Al-Jabali. According to PLO officials, Arafat was already planning to remove Jabali long before the abduction took place. But the abductors embarrassed Arafat, not only by exposing the unpopularity of the corrupt public security chief, but also by making Arafat reveal his real choices.

By agreeing to sack Jabali - a move which was said to be predetermined - and appointing his nephew Musa Arafat, the Palestinian leader further fed the discontent and deepened the polarization within the security forces. His choice provoked his supporters and critics alike, prompting the Fatah leader to send him a message that included the Arab saying: instead of adding kohl to your eye, you gouged it out. In other words, Arafat shot himself in the foot. His choice was another example of nepotism and reliance on corrupt officers, which initially left Dahlan in the stronger position: the behind-the-scenes king-in-waiting position. But Dahlan’s calculations did not take into account reactions of the main body of Fatah as well as the other PLO groups ? which he seems to have totally dismissed from the power struggle equation.

As it turned out, the influential leaders of Fatah, be it in the Gaza Strip or the West Bank , were quick and careful to both distance themselves from Dahlan, and at the same time call on Arafat to reconsider his appointments.

Influential Fatah figures in Gaza, like Abu Ali Mustafa and Ahmed Hallees, used the Arab satellite television stations to point a finger at Dahlan, without explicitly naming him, and condemn “coup d’?tat” tactics in the name of reform, and sent a dual message of loyalty and warning to Arafat. “These tactics are rejected, we still see Arafat as the symbol and the political leader. Therefore we believe that Arafat is the only one who can defuse the crisis,” said Abu Ali Mustafa, a man who in the past had used his leverage as legendary prisoner leader in Israeli jails to back the ascension of a young Dahlan to power.

Abu Ali, Halees, Sakhr Bseisso and other Fatah leaders used all channels - both direct and via the media - to convey to Arafat both their dissatisfaction with the way he is handling the situation, while at the same time reassuring the beleaguered leader they were not allowing Dahlan, or any other person, to use the wave of reform to unseat him.

Arafat finally gave in to the Palestinian mainstream. Although Musa Arafat - now demoted - remains by far more influential than his new chief Abdul-Raziq Al-Majaydeh. But the struggle is far from over, and has the potential to flare up and drown a popular reform movement. But unlike the many conclusions by Arab and Western pundits who rushed with calls for the removal of Arafat, the main Palestinian factions, and even the leaders of civil society, have not and would not focus on such a goal as a solution.

For starters, the fact that the USA and Israel are demanding the removal of Arafat has long undermined similar calls from Palestinians. For while the USA and Israel are mainly punishing Arafat for rejecting Israeli Prime Minister Yehud Barak’s proposal for a fragmented Palestinian entity, made at Camp David four years ago - whereby Palestinians would forfeit control over their borders, resources and even air space - the majority of the Palestinians have supported Arafat’s decision. In other words, while the USA is looking for a more malleable Palestinian leader, many Palestinians believe that Arafat has made too many compromises with Israel .

Another factor is that the American definition of reform may sound the same as what the Palestinian people demand, whereas in reality the concepts are worlds apart. For example the USA , Israel, and the majority of the Palestinians want the unification of the monstrously huge security apparatus. But the USA and Israel are seeking a well-controlled security apparatus that would crush the intifada and pre-empt future upheaval against Israel . For the majority of Palestinians, reform mostly means order: the strengthening of the rule of law, and the protection of Palestinians from abuse by the security services, as well as by Israel . The latter two are totally out of the Israeli-American equation.

The other factor that explains the Palestinians’ reaction ? i.e. refusal to turn the current situation into all-out movement to bring down Arafat - has to do with Palestinian history. Throughout all stages of the PLO history, Palestinians have refused to abandon Arafat as demanded by external powers - be they Arab governments or Israel . This was never an ode to the man himself, a prelude for Israel - and perhaps even Arab governments - to have a stronger say in the choice of Palestinian leadership.

This by no means implies that the Palestinians aren?t pressing Arafat to concede to power sharing, but these are again not the kind of concessions or objectives demanded by America and Israel . In the demands articulated in a statement made by the thirteen factions, including Hamas, and the reform paper submitted by Al-Aqsa brigades, Palestinians are demanding a broader collective decision-making process and genuine accountability. This includes an end to secret talks with Israel , as well as Palestinian guarantees to curb resistance, which would compromise the Palestinian people’s national and legitimate rights. In other words, the reforms Palestinian are seeking would impose restrictions on any Palestinian leader, or leaders, negotiating with Israel .

This acute difference between the Palestinian idea of reform and Israeli and American demands has been deliberately or inadvertently ignored by many observers, governments, and even the special UN envoy Terje Roed-Larson. Larson, one the architects of the Oslo accords, provoked anger among broad sectors of Palestinians - as well as Arafat - when in his monthly report to the UN he sharply focused on Arafat’s failure to reform security, while ignoring any reference to the landmark ruling by the International Court of Justice in The Hague which declared Israel’s apartheid wall “illegal”.

Larson’s statements were another example of how Israeli definition of reforms and security have become the basis against which the requirements for Palestinian political reform are measured. But just as there was broad discontent with Larson’s statements, there was also an equal rejection of a statement made by a spokesman of Arafat, who declared Larson “persona non grata”. The reaction to Larson’s statements, and to the Gaza power struggle, feed on genuine discontent and popular demands for an end to corruption and an absence of the rule of law. This underscores the plight of the Palestinians, who are caught on the one hand between the American-Israeli attempt to create a subservient Palestinian leadership, and Arafat and his cronies’ fear of losing his grip on power on the other.

But the events in Gaza have also highlighted two facts of Palestinian political life: firstly, that Dahlan, as influential as he is, has more to lose than Arafat by riding the wave of “reforms” while at the same time being hailed by Israel - either genuinely or tactically - as “their man in Gaza”. If anything, Dahlan risks being burnt out of the political game - and some already claim that this timing caused the normally cautious leader to respond too quickly to anti-Arafat signals emanating from the West. Secondly, Arafat can no longer get away with nominal changes, made in the name of reform, to maintain his power.

More significantly, unlike the situation in 1983, when Arafat clamped down on the Fatah rebellion, a similar result will be difficult to achieve now. Many in the Fatah movement, who are backed by Palestinian civil society organizations, will not back down or give in to Arafat’s tactics. The only option now is genuine political reform.

Published Friday, July 23rd, 2004 - 10:39am GMT

Lamis Andoni is a Palestinian journalist living in the USA .

Article courtesy of the Arabic Media Internet Network

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