Arafat loses his balance

The rebellion in Gaza shows that, when Israel leaves, the most likely result will be a bloody Palest

Wreathed in smiles, Yasser Arafat stood triumphant amid the ruin of his West Bank presidential headquarters in Ramallah. Beside him - arm locked in arm - was his prime minister, Ahmed Qureia (also known as Abu Ala).

Last month, Qureia tendered his resignation in protest at the "unprecedented chaos" reigning among and between the Palestinian Authority (PA) police forces in the Israeli-occupied Gaza Strip. The resignation had been rescinded, said Qureia in Ramallah, pending a new dispensation that would grant him and his cabinet more control over the forces. "I'm not going to bargain with President Arafat about authority. We are working together to save the homeland," he said.

For the dozens of PA functionaries huddled around the two men, that oath of fealty was enough to close the book on the most serious domestic challenge to Arafat's authoritarian rule since the PA was established in 1994.

For Palestinians in the occupied territories, however, the "reconciliation" did nothing to bridge the deep fractures that the challenge exposed within the ruling Fatah movement: generationally between a "young guard" leadership demanding reform and an "old guard" establishment exhibiting inertia; geographically between Gaza and the West Bank; politically over how to respond to Israel's decision to withdraw from Gaza sometime next year. "We are back to square one," shrugged a PA legislator.

The crisis began last month with a wave of abductions of PA police commanders and foreigners in Gaza by Palestinian militias affiliated to Fatah. As their ransom, the militias demanded an end to the rampant corruption in the PA through the sacking of the "old guard" police chiefs - in their eyes, the worst culprits. Uncharacteristically, Arafat caved in.

He then fought back. In deference to "reform", he appointed his nephew and former military intelligence commander, Musa Arafat, as overall head of the police forces: a man most Palestinians see as the epitome of corruption and brutality.

The result was outrage. Hundreds of dissident police officers, Fatah activists and militiamen took to the streets in Gaza, torching military intelligence police stations. A former PA cabinet minister and critic of Arafat's governance was shot in Ramallah, a hit that most Palestinians read as a warning to any would-be reformer. Arafat declared a state of emergency; Qureia quit.

Ariel Sharon, the Israeli prime minister, shook his head sanctimoniously. "Events in the Gaza Strip prove there is no one to talk to," he said, justifying his government's decisions to pull out of Gaza unilaterally and to exclude Arafat and the PA as a "negotiating partner".

Why did Arafat so deliberately fan the flames? The answer, say PA cabinet ministers, is that he saw the abductions not as brigandage, but more as the first moves in a "conspiracy" to remove him. He also made pretty clear that the man he believed to be behind the plot was the former PA security minister Mohammed Dahlan. Dahlan was once the most loyal of Arafat's followers and the most feared scourge of the PA's domestic opponents. Since his resignation as security chief in Gaza two years ago, however, Dahlan has recast himself as a reformer, tapping into an enormous well of Palestinian frustration over the PA's inability either to govern or to bring peace.

He is also at odds with his boss over Israel's putative withdrawal from Gaza. Together with Fatah's "young guard" leadership in Gaza, he believes the plan affords the PA an opportunity to prove to the world that it can govern if and when Israel withdraws from occupied Palestinian territory. Arafat - and many among the Palestinian leadership in Ramallah - views "disengagement" as a trap in which Israel offloads the burden of Gaza in return for tightening its hold on the West Bank and occupied Arab East Jerusalem. More ominously still, they see it as part of an Israeli and American agenda to sideline yet further the established Palestinian leadership in Ramallah in favour of a "separate", more malleable Palestinian leadership in Gaza.

Dahlan is America's and Israel's preferred "strongman" to take over Gaza: he has long enjoyed close ties with several international and regional intelligence services, including Israel's. And while few Palestinians believe Dahlan was behind the abductions, "his men" were certainly behind the resignations of PA officials and the violent protests that erupted in the wake of Musa Arafat's appointment.

So was this an attempted coup after the fashion of Arab regimes? No, says Mamdouh Nofal, a former Palestinian military commander, now an analyst and author. "What happened within Fatah and the PA [security] apparatus in Gaza was a naked power struggle that took the form of a rebellion," he says. "The objective was not the overthrow of Yasser Arafat and the PA, but rather to create a precedent and consolidate their positions in Fatah and the PA. What the rebels were after was to force the leadership to instigate major changes in the Palestinian security forces."

If so, the rebels failed. While Arafat conceded some control of his security forces to his prime minister, he has not budged on the issue that ignited the crisis in the first place. Musa Arafat remains head of the most powerful Palestinian police force in Gaza, with a remit of facing down by force any challenge to Arafat's rule from within Fatah's ranks. But the failure of the rebels to impose change cannot be seen as Arafat's "victory", says another Palestinian analyst, Khalil Shikaki.

"Perhaps the most significant feature of the turmoil in Gaza is that Arafat in name is now coming under direct attack," he says. "For most of the four-year-long intifada, Arafat managed to side now with this stream in Fatah, now with that, maintaining the balance between them and remaining immune from criticism. What we have seen in past weeks in Gaza is the end of the bal- ancing act. Instead, in order to maintain his control in Gaza, he has been forced to rely on people who are the most hated in Gaza." In this sense, "Arafat has been weakened by the crisis".

For Shikaki and (according to a recent poll by his Palestinian Centre for Survey and Research) 90 per cent of Palestinians in the occupied territories, the only exit from the crisis is "fundamental Palestinian reform" - specifically, new Palestinian elections (the last ones were held in 1996). These would certainly keep Arafat in office, but would return a reformist government that would force him to surrender many of his autocratic powers, says Shikaki.

However, faced with an Israeli military occupation in the West Bank and an American veto on any Palestinian suffrage that would grant Arafat a new lease of political life, few Palestinians believe that elections will come any time soon. In their absence, the struggle for reform is being fought in Gaza through the barrel of a gun. For Palestinians, it augurs a dismal future triggered by an Israeli withdrawal: the final descent of Fatah and the PA into a bloody power struggle over whatever spoils Israel chooses to leave behind.