Arafats moment of truth Chaos rocks Gaza

jerusalem | For Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat, it’s a moment of truth. Not unlike his decision to leave Beirut in 1982 following the Israeli siege, Arafat now must choose between bowing to reformists’ pressure in Gaza — which could mean giving up his authoritarian rule — and holding his ground, which could lead to all-out confrontation with his opponents in the Gaza Strip. It is the worst internal crisis for the Palestinian Authority since its birth 10 years ago.

The demonstrations, violence and political chaos of the past week has reflected deep frustration among Palestinians and some Palestinian Authority officials over widespread corruption in the administration, mass unemployment, a state of lawlessness in Palestinian cities and little hope that anything would change soon.

The chaos was set off over the weekend when several dozen armed men, members of Arafat’s own Fatah faction, committed what clearly was an act of rebellion against their leader: They ambushed the motorcade of the Palestinian Authority police chief in Gaza, longtime Arafat ally Ghazi Jabali, and kidnapped him.

The rebels refused to release Jabali until Arafat agreed to fire him for corruption. Arafat eventually agreed, and Jabali was freed.

Kidnappings continued throughout the weekend, as well as a series of other incidents that threatened to deprive Arafat of his hold on the increasingly chaotic Gaza Strip, which Israeli troops and settlers are due to leave in 2005.

Another Palestinian Authority official was kidnapped, along with five French volunteers. All were eventually freed following Arafat’s intervention.

Two senior officials, Rashid abu Shbak, head of Palestinian Authority preventive security force, and Amin al-Hindi, head of Palestinian Authority’s general intelligence service, handed in their resignations over the weekend, protesting “the absence of reforms and the continuation of a state of anarchy in the Gaza Strip.”

But Arafat’s dismissal of Jabali — seemingly an agreement to institute reforms — turned out to be deceptive.

Over the weekend, Arafat fired reformer Abdel Razek Al-Majaideh from his post as director of general security for the West Bank and Gaza Strip because Majaideh had called for political reform. Arafat replaced him with Mousa Arafat, a nephew who commands the much-reviled Palestinian military intelligence service and is widely accused of corruption.

The appointment fueled reformists’ anger. Riots ensued, with masked vigilantes from Arafat’s own Fatah faction clashing with Mousa Arafat loyalists in Gaza.

Early Sunday, July 18, members of the al-Aksa Brigades, the terrorist wing of Fatah — and who used to be close to Palestinian Authority leader — released prisoners held inside Mousa Arafat’s headquarters in the city of Khan Younis, in southern Gaza, and set the command post on fire.

On July, 19, Arafat was forced to rehire Majaideh and put him above his nephew.

In the meantime, Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia handed in his resignation, but Arafat refused to accept it.

The Palestinian Authority Cabinet set a meeting for July 19 to try to stabilize the situation. Qureia said he would renege on his resignation only if Arafat gave him some real power.

On July 20, Qureia agreed to stay on as prime minister for the time being, but he refused to withdraw his letter of resignation.

Arafat’s support is sinking fast, and nowhere faster than at home.

“President Arafat is responsible for this situation,” said Sufian abu-Zaidah, a senior Fatah leader. “We’ve had enough and we insist on real reforms. We are fed up with this method of administration.”

More than any other single figure, the man behind the unrest in Gaza seems to be Mohammad Dahlan. More than two years ago, Dahlan resigned his post as Palestinian Authority minister of internal security and since then has maintained a stance of passive opposition to Arafat.

Despite his strong position in Gaza, Dahlan himself faces strong opposition. Because the Israelis and Americans appear to favor him to keep the peace in Gaza once Israel withdraws, many Palestinians find him suspect.

Dahlan has not been vocal during this latest crisis, but he sees the impending Israeli withdrawal as an opportunity to restore his control of law and order in the strip. At a recent speech in Gaza, Dahlan said Palestinians either could build a model for administration in Gaza, or embrace “chaos and destruction.”

The battleground now is divided between Gaza and the West Bank. Kidnappings, arrests, release of prisoners and mass demonstrations are becoming commonplace in Gaza, while the political battleground is Ramallah, where Arafat rules from the ruins of his compound.

It is Arafat vs. Dahlan, the old guard from Tunisia vs. the younger generation of intifada activists, chaos vs. reform.