Vol. 3, No. 30 August 2, 2004
For the first time since the Palestinian Authority was established in 1994, popular rage aimed at the “corrupt leadership” enjoys the backing of the most powerful militia in Gaza – the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades.
Arafat’s opponents support the holding of municipal elections and elections to the Palestinian parliament in order to remove the Old Guard from power. In this way, the leaders of the intifada hope to receive the share of power they feel they deserve, and this would also improve Mohammad Dahlan’s chances of succeeding Arafat.
The Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, which continues to express its commitment to the armed struggle, is striving to upgrade its status from an armed militia under the command of the political leadership of Fatah to become a central political element, controlling the mother movement by force and playing a major part in the decision-making process.
Thus, this is not an ideological struggle between old Arafat-Tunis hardliners originating from outside the territories and young moderate insiders, but rather a power struggle involving a broad spectrum of Arafat opponents, many of whom are no less inflexible and militant.
The probable takeover of Fatah by its militia will create a more radical and hard-line movement with regard to settling the conflict with Israel. In light of past operational cooperation between the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades and Hamas, under the “Nationalist and Islamic Forces” umbrella, Hamas could become a stronger factor at a later stage by cooperating with these Fatah militants.
A Significant Challenge to Arafat
The organized protests that have recently erupted in the Gaza Strip represent a significant challenge to the leadership of Yasser Arafat. For the first time since the Palestinian Authority (PA) was established in 1994, popular rage aimed at the “corrupt leadership” enjoys the backing of the most powerful militia in Gaza – the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades – which is the military wing of the Fatah movement headed by Arafat himself. Moreover, the criticism is being directed specifically toward Arafat for his lack of openness and his despotic way of running the PA. By late July, the revolt had spread to the West Bank cities of Jenin and Nablus.
The sequence of events in Gaza began as follows: On 16 July 2004, armed Palestinians belonging to different factions within the Fatah movement abducted and then released police commander Razi Jebali, the head of the coordination office with Israel Khalid Abu Olah, and four French humanitarian activists in Khan Yunis. A PA military intelligence facility was also set on fire by Palestinian mobs. During the next two weeks, groups of armed Palestinians rallied against the corrupt leadership of the PA, burned down a police station in the village of Zawaidah, and briefly took over the governor’s office in Khan Yunis, retreating only after Arafat yielded to their demand to reinstate eleven dismissed officers.1 The escalating struggle with Arafat was also evidenced by the attempted assassination in Ramallah of former PA cabinet minister Nabil Amr, who was targeted by forces loyal to Arafat (that had threatened former PA Prime Minister Mahmud Abbas [Abu Mazen] in the past.)
The Hidden Hand of Mohammad Dahlan
Behind the rage in the Palestinian street stands the home-grown, local leadership, the Young Guard within the Fatah movement, as opposed to the Old Guard who had returned to the territories with Arafat from Tunis and elsewhere in 1994 after the Oslo Accords. Mohammad Dahlan, former head of the Preventive Security Service (PSS) in Gaza, is considered to be the hidden leader of the dissidents who defines the goals and targets, and orchestrates the rebellion by remote control.2 Dahlan appears to have successfully gathered to his side a strong coalition comprised of loyal officers in the PSS, Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades operatives, the Popular Resistance Committees (a terrorist militia headed by former PSS officers), the Abu Rish militia in Rafah, and the Fatah leadership in the Gaza Strip.3
As the riots persist, more and more Palestinian politicians have dared to join the public demand for political reforms and the criticism of Arafat. Former Palestinian cabinet minister Rafiq al-Natshe said Arafat “runs a dictatorship,” operates “gangs” to stay in power, and “oiled parliament members with twelve million dollars” in order to depose him from his former position.4 Hannan Ashrawi, a prominent Palestinian spokeswoman and parliament member, called for the end of Arafat’s “one-man-show” and accused him of unlawfully holding control of the security forces.5 The PA Minister of Housing, Abd al-Rahman Hamad, called on Arafat to give up a portion of his security powers and appoint a strong minister of interior.
In an interview with the Beirut daily Al-Hayat (25 July 2004), Mohammad Dahlan denied any connection to the revolt in Gaza, emphasizing that his dispute is with Arafat’s corrupt assistants and advisors and not with Arafat himself, whom he called the “symbol” of the Palestinian people. However, Dahlan did not hesitate to express his sympathy for the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades. “I am proud of defending them [Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades operatives] every time it was necessary. They are familiar [to the Palestinian people] and are proud of their heroic operations, which brought dignity to the Palestinian people.”6
Despite his public denials, this is not the first time Dahlan has challenged Arafat in the past year. He has often criticized Arafat’s ruling style in closed sessions, diplomatic meetings, and even in briefings with Western journalists.7 In recent months, Dahlan has urged Fatah leaders in Gaza to invigorate political life within Fatah by beginning an electoral process to select the local leadership after years of organizational stagnation – ignoring Arafat’s strong opposition to such moves.8 Dahlan has also begun to go public with his criticism, charging in an interview with the Kuwaiti daily al-Watan (1 August 2004) that Arafat is sitting on “the bodies of the Palestinians and on “their ruins.” He also revealed that five billion dollars in financial assistance to the Palestinian Authority over the last number of years has vanished, and that he has no idea what happened to the money.9
The initial goals of the current “rebellion” were the removal of Razi Jebali and Moussa Arafat (Arafat’s nephew) from their positions of power as commanders of the Palestinian Police and the National Security Forces, respectively. Both long-time Dahlan rivals were blamed for corruption and cronyism. However, the criticism against them is only the tip of the iceberg and serves as an indication of deeper aspirations by the intriguers.
Dahlan and his counterparts, backed by Prime Minister Ahmad Qurei and parliament members, are demanding that Arafat implement comprehensive security reforms, which primarily include the reorganization of the security services under a defined hierarchy and the transfer of Arafat’s security authority to the prime minister. In addition, Arafat’s opponents support the holding of municipal elections and elections to the Palestinian parliament in order to remove the Old Guard from power. In this way they hope to further weaken Arafat’s influence and pave the way for the leaders of the intifada to receive the share of power they feel they deserve. This would also improve Dahlan’s chances of succeeding Arafat.
“The Dream of the Martyrs”
On 15 July 2004, the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades published for the first time a detailed political platform under the name, “The Dream of the Martyrs,” which reveals their future aspirations. The Brigades cast responsibility for the dire straits of the Palestinians on all levels of the PA leadership who were involved in corruption or in the “fruitless” peace negotiations. Defining “corruption and the [Israeli] occupation” as “two sides of the same coin,” they call for establishing a judicial committee with authority to investigate all suspected Palestinian officials without any restrictions.
Even more interesting from the Israeli perspective is the Brigades’ political vision. The Brigades express their commitment to the same outlook represented by Yasser Arafat, namely, the establishment of a Palestinian state up to the 1967 borders, evacuation of all Israeli settlements in the West Bank, and implementation of the “right of return” of millions of Palestinian refugees to Israel’s sovereign territory. Following the Fatah ideology consistently, they announced their total commitment to pursuing the armed struggle against Israel until all Palestinian national objectives are realized, including the return of the refugees, which means the destruction of Israel by demographic means.10 Thus, this is not an ideological struggle between old Arafat-Tunis hardliners originating from outside the territories and young moderate insiders, but rather a power struggle involving a broad spectrum of Arafat opponents, many of whom are no less inflexible and militant.
Arafat is fully aware of the severe and unprecedented challenge to his leadership. Under growing domestic pressure, he consented to dismiss Razi Jebali and appointed Abd al-Razeq al-Majaidah as supreme commander of Palestinian forces in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank. He also canceled the new appointment of Moussa Arafat and ordered a reduction in the number of security services to three.11
Finally, in response to broad public pressure, he appeared to acquiesce to a broad reshuffle of the Palestinian cabinet and to transfer some of his own security powers to Prime Minister Qurei, who then withdrew his previous resignation.12 But this time, it seems that Arafat’s tactics are not as effective as they were in the past. Arafat is finding it more difficult to please his opponents without taking into consideration their demands and giving up his security powers.
Lessons from the Current Crisis
The major lessons to be learned so far from the current crisis in Gaza are as follows:
The rebellion against Arafat serves the interests of the moderate Arab states (Egypt and Jordan) as well as Israel, the U.S., and the EU, all of whom desire to see the end of Arafat’s political role or at least a significant decrease in his influence on the decision-making process.
Dahlan has strengthened his position as a national leader and as a would-be successor to Arafat. He has become identified with the reformers rather than with the old, hated regime of which he was a part for many years.
Arafat’s opposition is heterogeneous and includes moderate Fatah leaders alongside the armed militias, although the two groups represent completely different political agendas. While the moderate reformers are finding in this course of events a political opportunity to promote democracy and to renew negotiations with Israel, the militias, which continue to express their commitment to the armed struggle, are striving to gain political power at the expense of the Old Guard. Thus, a victory over Arafat in this round will not necessarily lead to a new and pragmatic Palestinian line.
Israel’s planned unilateral disengagement from the Gaza Strip has accelerated the struggle over future Palestinian rule. In this context, the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades is striving to upgrade its status from an armed militia under the command of the political leadership of Fatah to become a central political element, controlling the mother movement by force and playing a major part in the decision-making process.
The probable takeover of Fatah by its militia will create a more radical and hard-line movement with regard to settling the conflict with Israel. However, the moderate leaders of Fatah, reading the political map, prefer to side with the rebels and lash out at Arafat in order to clear themselves from possible accusations of corruption and connection to the “old regime.”
Gaza’s slide into chaos, the crumbling of the Palestinian Authority, and even the eruption of a limited Palestinian civil war have all become real and possible. The current crisis, even if contained, foreshadows the likely scenario to be expected on the day after Arafat leaves the scene.
Meanwhile, Hamas and Islamic Jihad are out of the game. At the same time, they are taking advantage of the rivalry inside of Fatah in order to emphasize their anti-corruption agenda and to demand the establishment of a supreme joint Palestinian leadership. In light of past operational cooperation between the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades and Hamas, under the “Nationalist and Islamic Forces” umbrella, Hamas could become a stronger factor at a later stage by cooperating with these Fatah militants. It is not surprising that Palestinian political observers from Mustapha Barghouti to Khalil Shikaki envision a unity government that integrates Palestinian Islamists into the political system.13
The Twilight of Arafat’s Rule
In short, the revolt against Arafat originated from his own Fatah movement and signals the twilight of Arafat’s rule. The Young Guard in Fatah is striving to force a change of generations in the leadership of Fatah and the Palestinian Authority, keeping Arafat only as a “symbol” and a “spiritual leader” for the Palestinian people.
Surprisingly, at this historical junction, the interests of Israel and the new Palestinian leadership coincide, although from different approaches. The new Palestinian leadership sees in the proposed reforms and elections a golden opportunity to take over Palestinian rule. Israel, for its part, is interested primarily in stability in the Palestinian territories, in toppling Arafat, and in the establishment of a new Palestinian Authority capable of taking responsibility for security issues. Yet, after the dust settles, a Palestinian political outlook based on a “zero-sum game” may be expected to once again dominate Palestinian-Israeli relations.
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1. http://www.nrg.co.il/online/1/ART/756/345.html http://www.nrg.co.il/online/1/ART/757/057.html http://www.nrg.co.il/online/1/ART/759/463.html
2. http://weekly.ahram.org.eg/2004/700/re3.htm http://www.jpost.com/servlet/Satellite?pagename=JPost/JPArticle/ShowFull&cid=1090045862446
9. “Dahlan: Arafat is Sitting on the Bodies of the Palestinians,” Voice of Israel Radio, 1 August 2004 (Hebrew).
12. http://www.dailystar.com.lb/article.asp?edition_id=10&categ_id=2&article_id=6667; http://www.palestine-pmc.com/details.asp?cat=1&id=1386
13. Khalil Shikaki, “Let Us Vote,” Wall Street Journal, 30 July 2004.
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Lt. Col. Jonathan D. Halevi is a researcher of the Middle East and radical Islam. His previous writings include “Is Hamas Preparing to Inherit the Palestinian Authority?” Jerusalem Issue Brief #3-14 (January 7, 2004); “Al-Qaeda’s Intellectual Legacy: New Radical Islamic Thinking Justifying the Genocide of Infidels,” Jerusalem Viewpoints #508 (December 1, 2003); “Who is Taking Credit for Attacks on the U.S. Army in Western Iraq? Al-Jama’a al-Salafiya al-Mujahida,” Jerusalem Issue Brief #3-3 (August 5, 2003); and “Understanding the Breakdown of Israeli-Palestinian Negotiations,” Jerusalem Viewpoints #486 (September 15, 2002). The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the IDF.