Towards Palestinian Elections: The Democracy of the Rifles

, December 28, 2005

Vol. 5, No. 13     December 28, 2005

  • Arafat was the cement that held all the Palestinian factions together including, unofficially, the Muslim factions. This cement has now disappeared. All the divisions that we see in Palestinian society today, that have been there all along, have reemerged. He was able to control both the Fatah outsiders who came from Tunis, and those who were in the territories during the first intifada.
  • Around 200,000 people came in from outside after Oslo, including a great many PLO activists. The main power of this group derived from the fact that they were close to the “old man.” But the old man is gone and all the outsiders are in a much more problematic position today.

  • Palestinians today are primarily concerned with the loss of control in their society – in dimensions and to depths never seen before. Civilians have their own weapons, and the weapons of the security forces are barely under the control of any central authority. When Arafat was operating from Lebanon, he would speak about “the democracy of the rifles.” Today, the Palestinians are indeed living with the democracy of the rifles.

  • Who is stronger: Hamas or Fatah? Some Israeli intelligence officials say the ratio of armed forces is 22,000 for the PA and 6,000 for Hamas – a four-to-one ratio – which is enough for the PA to overcome Hamas. But every Hamas and Jihad member is worth four or five or six Fatah members because he’s much more committed and fanatical and has more self-discipline.

 

 

The Impact of Arafat’s Death

Yasser Arafat was the cement that held all the Palestinian factions together, including the Muslim factions which were not under the PLO umbrella. This cement has now simply disappeared. Suddenly, all of the problems that had been pushed aside by Arafat or because of the existence of Arafat have reemerged. All the divisions that we see in Palestinian society today have been there all along under the surface.

Today the Palestinians are trying to advance the idea that Arafat was poisoned. Why? Because he was a legend, and a legend cannot die in such a humiliating way as the world saw on television, including the embarrassing scandal that his wife made. The fact remains that he died outside of the Palestinian territories, not in Ramallah or Jerusalem. So it is important to show that he was killed by the Israeli Mossad, or the British secret service. He had to have been killed by some enemy because this is a much more dignified way to go. The Palestinian government nominated a committee a year ago to review all the documents and decide the cause of Arafat’s death, but I don’t believe the committee will ever issue a report because the real circumstances surrounding his death do not match the image of the major Palestinian leader of the last forty years.

 

Who is the “Sole Legitimate Representative of the Palestinian People”?

In the last ten years Israelis have almost forgotten the name “PLO.” They talk about the Palestinian Authority. Arafat succeeded in convincing most of the world – including Israel – that as head of the PLO he was the sole legitimate representative of all the Palestinian people. Every time I met with a PLO official, they always insisted on saying: “the PLO, the sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people.” Why was it so important for them to remind us of this fact? Because there were others who hold a different view – those in the Islamic camp who were not part of the PLO.

What is today called Hamas is actually the Muslim Brotherhood. The Muslim Brotherhood has operated here since the 1940s and both Hamas and Islamic Jihad developed from it. Only in 1987, at the beginning of the first intifada, did they declare themselves Hamas, which in the beginning referred only to the fighting arm of the Muslim Brotherhood. Later the name “Hamas” was used for the entire “daawa” system, including the social and welfare infrastructure.

At the end of the 1980s, even before Arafat came to the territories from Tunis, he held secret conversations with the Hamas leadership, which demanded 40 percent representation in the PLO institutions. But Arafat turned them down. Today we are witnessing a major struggle in the municipal elections and the elections for the parliament, in which Hamas is seeking to establish its claim for significant representation within the governing institutions.

However, if the Muslim movements enter the PLO, they will try to impose their Islamist agenda which is based on the laws of sharia. For example, in Kalkilya, where the municipality was taken over by Hamas, the annual “Palestine Festival” was cancelled this year to avoid mixed seating of men and women. But this was not as surprising as it seemed, since before 1967, according to the archives of Jordanian intelligence, Kalkilya was the cradle of the Muslim Brotherhood in the West Bank.

 

The “Old Man” Who Protected the Outsiders from Tunis is Gone

In addition to the Islamists, Arafat was able to control both the Fatah outsiders who came from Tunis and those who were in the territories during the first intifada (1987-1991). Arafat was a symbol for all the Palestinian people, but he was mainly the symbol of the outside. In 1994 and 1995 he brought with him all these outsiders who had lived for 30-40 years outside the territories in Tunis, Yemen, and other places.

The Palestinians call this “the small return.” Around 200,000 people came in from outside after Oslo, including a great many PLO activists. The splits in Fatah that we see today originated back then. The main power of this group derived from the fact that they were close to the action, to the “old man.” But the old man is gone and all the outsiders are in a much more problematic position today in relation to the younger generation who grew up inside the territories.

 

Major Palestinian Concerns Today

Palestinians today are primarily concerned with the loss of control in their society – in dimensions and to depths never seen before. Civilians have their own weapons, and the weapons of the security forces are not under the full control of any central authority. When Arafat was operating from Lebanon, he would speak about “the democracy of the rifles.” Today, the Palestinians are indeed living with the democracy of the rifles.

When Palestinians talk about corruption, they refer also to the management of the PA, which started badly from the beginning and became worse, but this had nothing to do with the “occupation.” The situation in the Palestinian courts also has nothing to do with the “occupation.” The courts are inside the cities and no “occupier” enters the courts when they are in operation. However, since 1996 there has been shooting inside the courts in the West Bank and Gaza, sometimes in front of the judge, because some of the families were not satisfied with the judge’s decision and they would shoot the accused in the middle of the courtroom. Judges were also threatened at home.

Since the first intifada, ten to twenty different gangs have arisen, which are found in every city: the “Black Panthers,” “Red Eagles,” PFLP, DFLP, Islamic Jihad, Hamas, and the Fatah-Tanzim, with further divisions such as Tanzim Balata, Tanzim Askar, and the like. There are also pressure groups that come from inside the Palestinian security services, whose involvement in the economy is part of Arafat’s legacy. Arafat may be dead, but most of the systems he created are still here. Only the names have changed.

Under the system that Arafat built, the Palestinian Education Ministry has 28 directors-general. Arafat’s system of governance was the system of families, of the hamullah. For example, he would give the first director-general position to the Abdulhabi family in Jenin. Then members of another tribe or family would ask, “What about us?” So he would give them a position as director-general too, in the same ministry, which means one cellular phone, a car, and a job paying $500-600 a month.

The anarchy in Palestinian society reaches into every corner of everyday life, including the hospitals. After the disengagement there were major clashes between Hamas and the PA in Gaza, with three policemen killed and more than 100 injured. Officers from the PA intelligence service brought injured relatives to the hospital, entered the operating room, and threatened to shoot the doctors if they did not operate on their family member immediately. Incidents like this have triggered strikes of doctors almost every month in Gaza. The same thing has occurred in Nablus in the West Bank. Unfortunately, such stories do not reach the local and foreign media.

 

The Missing Factor

Israel is trying to help Abbas, and the Americans are trying as well, but it’s not enough. What is really needed is the crystallizing of a movement inside the Palestinian people to come and change things. The pressures are there but they are not gathering a critical mass in order to be translated into real power in the streets.

 

Who Would Win a Hamas-Fatah Confrontation?

Who is stronger: Hamas or Fatah? If Abbas makes a decision – which he never made before – to confront Hamas, who would win? Some Israeli intelligence officials say the ratio of forces is 22,000 for the PA and 6,000 for Hamas – a four-to-one ratio – which is enough for the PA to overcome Hamas. But I believe they are mistaken.

In 1980, the head of Israeli military intelligence was asked who was going to win the Iran-Iraq War. He predicted the Iraqi side would win because it possessed four times the number of tanks and planes as Iran. What happened in the end was that after ten years of war, the Iranians were very close to winning. He failed to make the correct assessment because there was something that he couldn’t assess because he didn’t have the tools. He didn’t have the ability to assess the motivation of the forces.

It’s the same story here. Every Hamas and Jihad member is worth four or five or six Fatah members because he’s much more committed and fanatical and has more self-discipline. In my opinion, the PA is not at one minute before midnight but twenty minutes after midnight. Mohammed Dahlan told Arafat during his last year, “If you don’t do the confrontation now, it will be too late.” And he was right.

 

Hamas Participation in PA Elections

I personally very much support the participation of Hamas in the elections. Hamas, or the Muslim Brotherhood, had told Arafat: “You may be legitimate but you’re not the sole representative. We are here too.” Israel signed the Oslo agreements with only half of the Palestinians. Some Israelis say that now that Abbas is PA Chairman, Israel has an address to deal with. But he represents only half of an address, without the Islamic movement. Every paper that Israel signs with Abbas before the Palestinian elections is worthless because he doesn’t represent the whole system. He represents perhaps 20 percent of it, if that, and that is the key problem.

Hamas should take part in the elections, and then Israel can condition its dealing with a united Palestinian government on eliminating all the uncontrolled weapons and disavowing the idea of destroying Israel.

Even if Abu Mazen wins the elections in January, he will not disarm Hamas after the elections. I foresee the situation continuing to deteriorate, and the PA is going to fail at the end of the day.

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Brig.-Gen. (res.) Shalom Harari served in the territories for twenty years as a senior advisor on Palestinian affairs for Israel’s Defense Ministry, retiring in 1997. He is a senior research scholar with the Institute for Counter-Terrorism (ICT) at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya, and is associated with the Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI) in Jerusalem. This Jerusalem Issue Brief is based on his presentation to the Institute for Contemporary Affairs in Jerusalem on October 11, 2005.

About Brig. Gen. (res.) Shalom Harari

Brig.-Gen. (res.) Shalom Harari is a Senior Research Scholar with the Institute for Counter-Terrorism (ICT) at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya. He served in the territories for twenty years as a senior advisor on Palestinian affairs for Israel’s Defense Ministry.