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Last Updated: Sunday, 18 July, 2004, 13:15 GMT 14:15 UK
Analysis: Arafat backed into corner
By Gerald Butt
Middle East analyst

The tangled web of Palestinian politics looks, all of a sudden, so much more complicated and dangerous.

Key individuals and groups - Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, Prime Minister Ahmed Qurei, senior Palestinian Authority officials, Islamic militant organisations, and so on - continue to vie for power and influence.

At the same time, new elements have appeared that could undermine the already delicate pattern of relationships in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Prime Minister Ahmed Qurei and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat
Arafat went over his prime minister's head on security

The significance of the new elements is that they are drawn from within the ranks of Fatah, the mainstream Palestinian movement led by Mr Arafat.

The proposal of the Sharon government to withdraw the Israeli presence from Gaza has served to intensify the new and existing rivalries.

The coming weeks will show whether or not instinctive Palestinian cohesiveness at a time of common crisis can stop the current pattern of events descending into civil war.

Impotence or power?

Mr Arafat is responding to the latest crisis as though nothing has happened over the past few years to diminish his authority.

Going over the head of his prime minister, he ordered an overhaul of the Palestinian Authority's security structure.

Mr Arafat must surely be aware now that the political climate has changed beyond all recognition
And, true to form, he appointed one of his most trusted men - this time a nephew, Moussa Arafat - to the top post.

Prime Minister Ahmed Qurei, by contrast, believed that it was his task to take matters in hand, and when he was unable to secure more authority for himself, he tendered his resignation.

This power struggle at the top leaves senior Palestinian Authority officials - civilian as well as military - in an ever more difficult position.

Starved of resources and increasingly lacking the respect of the community at large, they stand accused of being impotent agents of a divided, weak and corrupt establishment.

Reforms or else

Up to now, these officials have recognised a common enemy in the militant Islamic movements inside the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Seeing the latters' authority and support grow has left the Arafat loyalists with an impossible choice:

  • to try to disarm the militants and risk civil war

  • leave the status quo unchanged and await powerful Israeli responses to acts of violence committed by the Islamic radicals

As if this was not enough, the Palestinian Authority now faces challenges from groups of young and highly politicised young men within the Fatah movement.

The militant Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade in Gaza City
Militant groups have decried Yasser Arafat's new appointments

They want real political reforms and the rooting out of corruption, rather than the vague promises of change that they have heard so far.

And they want the reforms now.

For the time being at least, these disaffected voices are not calling for the removal of Mr Arafat and his close aides.

But, as a spokesman for the Jenin Martyrs' Brigade - the previously unknown group said to have been behind the recent kidnappings in Gaza - made clear: "With all due respect to President Arafat, the Palestinian Authority cannot continue being monopolised by [Arafat] and his relatives."

The spokesman added that "we have our own ways to show our rejection".

Descent into chaos?

The implications of that last remark will not be lost on Mr Arafat and his aides.

The elements within Fatah critical of the leadership have been rubbing shoulders for years with the Islamic militants and have seen how the militants' direct action has won them popular support.

In short, Mr Arafat must surely be aware now that the political climate has changed beyond all recognition.

While in the past he could have swiftly shifted the pieces on the chessboard to get out of check, today his reach is severely limited.

Responding swiftly to the demands of the disaffected within Fatah may be his only option - if he and the whole shaky Palestinian Authority is not to find itself facing checkmate.

If that were to happen, with even the illusion of a central authority gone, avoiding the descent into more chaos, and perhaps civil war, would be still more difficult than it is today.

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