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The Palestinian Battle for Succession
March 3, 2004

JCPA Middle East BriefingThe following analysis, by Jerusalem Post journalist Khaled Abu Toameh, was published on Access Middle East.

Shortly after Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat angrily stormed out of a meeting of the Fatah revolutionary council in Ramallah last week, one of his aides approached him with a small folded note. When Arafat opened the message, he was shocked to discover that it was from the mayor of Nablus, Ghassan Shakah, informing him of his decision to resign.

Shakah later told Arafat that he was fed up with lawlessness and chaos in Nablus and other PA controlled areas. "We are rapidly sliding into chaos, and this is very dangerous," Shakah complained.

Shakah's resignation is seen by many Palestinians as a major blow for Arafat, who is facing an unprecedented campaign to rein in armed gangs roaming the streets of many cities, villages and refugee camps.

Most of the unruly militiamen belong to Arafat's ruling Fatah movement, whose leaders are locked in a fierce power struggle. At the Fatah revolutionary council meeting, some senior officials, including national security adviser Jibril Rajoub, called for dismantling the movement's armed wing, the Aksa Martyrs Brigades.

Founded shortly after the beginning of the intifada, the Aksa Martyrs Brigades consists of several hundred gunmen who are responsible for many suicide bombings and shooting attacks on Israeli civilians and IDF troops.

But many of the group's members are also behind a surge in criminal activity in the Palestinian territories, including murder, rape, kidnappings, armed robberies, extortion and physical assaults. All this has not stopped Arafat from keeping these men on his payroll. Further, Arafat has refused to grant the PA security forces a free hand in dealing with the thugs.

This is precisely the reason why Shakah, the longest-serving Palestinian mayor, decided to quit. Last November, Shakah's brother, Buraq, was gunned down in Nablus by assailants believed to be affiliated with Fatah.

The mayor has since repeatedly requested that Arafat order the security forces to apprehend the culprits, whose identity, he said, is known to all. Although Arafat said he had set up a special commission of inquiry to probe the assassination, the murderers continue to walk around freely in Nablus. On some occasions, they have even boasted in public of their role in the killing, threatening that the mayor himself was next in turn.

At the revolutionary council meeting, Arafat stubbornly rejected calls for dismantling the Aksa Martyrs Brigades, hailing the group's members as heroes of the Palestinian national movement. Explains a senior Fatah official in Ramallah: "Arafat considers these men to be his soldiers on the ground. He relies on them more than he does on the security forces. After all, these men are among his staunchest supporters."

Besides, adds the official, "dismantling the Aksa Martyrs Brigades would mean that Arafat would have to take similar measures against Hamas, Islamic Jihad and other armed factions. This could lead to an all-out civil war, and I'm not sure this is what Arafat wants these days."

The mutiny inside Fatah is being described by some Palestinians as the biggest challenge to Arafat's autocratic regime in decades. For the first time, Fatah operatives are openly criticizing Arafat and his cronies, accusing them of stealing the money of the people and bad leadership. These are allegations which in the past cost some people their jobs at best and their lives at worse.

However, today many activists and officials are no longer afraid to speak out against corruption and the absence of democracy and transparency. This is largely attributed to the fact that they sense that Arafat and his dozen or so security forces have been considerably weakened by the ongoing conflict with Israel.

Representatives of the younger generation of Fatah activists are spearheading the anti-corruption campaign. In recent weeks, hundreds of them have either resigned or suspended their membership in the movement to boost their demands for reforms and an end to corruption.

Their main argument is that veteran Fatah leaders who returned with Arafat from Tunis in 1994 (the "Tunisians," as many Palestinians call them) have taken control over the movement, refusing to share power with those who spent many years in Israeli prisons and played an active role in the first intifada, which began in 1987.

Arafat has clearly preferred the Tunisians to the local grassroots activists. The Tunisians dominate the key decision-making Fatah bodies -- the revolutionary council and the central committee -- as well as senior positions in PA ministries and institutions.

One of these "outsiders" -- Ghazi Jabali, commander of the PA blue-uniformed police force -- recently got a "taste" of this power struggle when four members of the Preventative Security Service in the Gaza Strip jammed his head in his office toilet. The assailants belong to a security force that consists solely of young Fatah activists who were brought up under Israeli occupation, and not in Lebanon, Iraq or Jordan.

A few days later, Fatah gunmen opened fire at two PA cabinet ministers while they were sitting in a restaurant in Jenin. The two were unhurt. The attackers later explained that they did not want to see any senior PA official in their city "because they were stealing our money." The ministers were forced to hide in the nearby refugee camp for several hours before they were safely led out of the city. Many top PA officials are now afraid to enter such cities as Nablus and Jenin.

"We are living under the rule of the jungle," complained the Nablus mayor.

"Lawlessness and anarchy have become a norm."

The majority of Palestinians seem to agree, although many don't have the guts to express their views in public. "You never know who's hiding behind the mask," said a former cabinet minister. "You can never tell who's knocking on your door at night. It's very frightening."

But what's even more frightening for many Palestinians is the thought of where all this is leading them to. In particular, they are concerned with what will happen the day after Arafat is gone.

Some see the current anarchy as an indication that things could only worsen in the post-Arafat era. "What we are witnessing today is a power struggle between various elements in the Palestinian Authority," said a Palestinian editor in Gaza City.

"The general feeling among many Palestinian officials is that Arafat is weak and that this is the proper time to establish bases of power ahead of the battle for succession. The way things stand now, it looks like it could be an unpleasant and filthy battle," concluded the editor.