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Tuesday, 24 July, 2001, 13:03 GMT 14:03 UK
Clashes expose Palestinian divisions
Yasser Arafat
Yasser Arafat's authority is increasingly challenged
By BBC News Online's Fiona Symon

The outbreak of inter-Palestinian clashes in the Gaza Strip represents a new twist in the 10-month intifadah and a direct challenge to the authority of Yasser Arafat.

The immediate cause of the fighting was the arrest of Palestinian militants by the Palestinian security forces.

About 20 Palestinian gunmen, including members of Mr Arafat's Fatah faction and the Islamic militant group Hamas, fired at the Gaza City home of military intelligence chief, triggering a clash with his bodyguards.

Shared resentment has led to growing mobilisation against negotiations with Israel - as well as a marked decline in Mr Arafat's popularity

Yezid Sayegh of the International Institute for Strategic Studies
The incident reflects widespread opposition to security co-operation between the Palestinian Authority and Israel.

But popular resentment of the PA and its leader Mr Arafat goes deeper than such policy disagreements.

Disparities in wealth, education and social outlook between Gaza and the West Bank - which has enjoyed a relatively higher standard of living - are one source of division.

Impoverished refugees

But the greatest threat to stability comes from the impoverished and overcrowded Palestinian refugee population - representing 45% of the inhabitants of the West Bank and Gaza.

The Palestinian refugees were initially won over by Mr Arafat's administration by being placed on the payroll of the rapidly expanding government sector - particularly the police and security services.

The value of such perks declined rapidly as a new Palestinian elite which had entered the territories in the wake of the Oslo accords consolidated their position in the official hierarchy and used public office to enrich themselves.

Reputation for graft

The administration's dismal reputation for graft has given a boost to Islamist opponents, such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad.

But it has also increased the militancy of the Fatah rank-and-file in the refugee camps and among other low-income urban groups, says Yezid Sayegh of London's International Institute for Strategic Studies.

Israel's blockade of the West Bank and Gaza Strip - bringing the Palestinian Authority to the brink of financial collapse - has further undermined loyalty to Mr Arafat..

Over 30% of Palestinians now live below the poverty line as defined by the World Bank and many of these are concentrated in the refugee camps of Gaza.

Armed offshoots of one or other of the security agencies answering to Mr Arafat have tended to defy the Palestinian authority and engage in their own illicit economic activities, says Dr Sayegh.

"Shared resentment has led to growing mobilisation against negotiations with Israel - as well as a marked decline in Mr Arafat's popularity - and increasingly blurred the differences between Fatah supporters and the Islamists of Hamas and the smaller Islamic Jihad".

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