News Analysis: Resignation of Fatah Officials Point to Disarray Within the PLO

The recent resignations of several key Palestinian officials in the administered territories point to frustration, resentment and a struggle for leadership within the Palestine Liberation Organization.

Experts on Palestinian politics say the resignations, mainly by officials of Yasser Arafat’s mainstream A1 Fatah faction of the PLO, also represent a clash between a local leadership that paid its dues during the intifada, often with a series of prison sentences, and so-called “salon activists” — those who have directed PLO activities from the relative comfort of Tunis, as well as wealthy Palestinians coming from established families.

The resignations are “only the tip of the iceberg” of the upheaval that is certain to occur in the PLO’s difficult transition from a national liberation movement into a self-governing authority, warned Elie Rekhess, senior research fellow at the Dayan Center for Middle East Studies at Tel Aviv University.

Several senior Fatah leaders in the territories quit this week to protest Arafat’s appointments last month of Zakharia al-Agha and Faisal Husseini, to head Fatah in the Gaza Strip and West Bank, respectively.

Sami Abu Samhadana, who resigned as chief of Fatah’s Gaza office, reportedly said that such leaders should be elected and not appointed. He criticized the PLO leadership in Tunis for mismanagement in the territories and for mishandling the ongoing autonomy negotiations with Israel.

According to Fatah sources, Tawfik Abu Khousa, Abu Samhadana’s deputy, and Zakharia Talmas, the head of the Gaza Arab Journalists Association, also resigned this week.

Two weeks ago, Palestinian spokeswoman Hanan Ashrawi resigned from the PLO. She reportedly had critized Arafat’s autocratic style and had doubts about his commitment to democracy and human rights.

Of the two major recent appointments, Agha, in particular, is viewed in the territories as an aristocrat who never served in prison. As a result, Arafat’s decision to name him as the Fatah leader in Gaza is deeply resented.

But Husseini, too, is a problem for many, according to Zakharia al-Qaq, Palestinian director of the Israel/Palestine Center for Research and Information.

“These are political families who are seen as having failed the Palestinian (people) during the ’30s and ’40s,” he said. “They don’t enjoy popularity among the Palestinian constituency.”

‘APPOINTMENTS WITHOUT POPULAR SUPPORT’

“The big conflict is over the PLO policy of making appointments without popular support,” concurred Gershon Baskin, Israeli director of the Israel/Palestine research center. Local Palestinians “are not willing to make compromises on their right to democracy,” he said.

On top of this, he added, the Palestinians see that in almost every round of negotiations on the autonomy accord with Israel, there is no local representation.

The resignations are a clear message, Baskin said, that when Arafat comes to the territories, the locals will not be “willing to accept the unilateral imposition” of his rule.

For al-Qaq, they are only the most transparent signals to date of the internal struggle that has been plaguing the PLO.

The appointments show that Arafat is trying to control the territories the same way he has controlled his organization in Tunis, although the situations are entirely different, he said.

The power elite in Tunis needs “a different attitude and approach,” al-Qaq said.

Otherwise, he warned, there could be another uprising, only this time against an authoritarian Palestinian regime.

“There has been a struggle between the inside and the outside (of the PLO) for years,” said Rekhess of the Dayan Center. “But as the moment of truth nears, the sensitive nerves get more exposed and more touchy; hence the recent crisis.”

Rekhess predicted the struggle all across Palestinian society will only become more acute and degenerate into chaos when the Israeli army withdraws from the territories.

CONCERN ABOUT DELAY IN ELECTIONS

Arafat’s recent statements that he intends to postpone Palestinian elections scheduled for July, said al-Qaq, are a troubling sign of things to come. “Everyone has a feeling Arafat will not go through with them.”

The PLO’s dilemma over the elections is whether the Islamic fundamentalist Hamas movement, which opposes the self-rule accord, will join the process, and if it does, how strong it will be, said Rekhess. The talk of postponement is a reflection of “apprehension Fatah won’t be able to gain control,” he said.

Meanwhile, Palestinian locals are frustrated because they feel the agreement with Israel is “hard to digest” and because they have no channel of information on it from the Palestinian side,” said al-Qaq.

“Palestinians are getting contradictory messages. There is confusion, chaos and uncertainty, and they fear democracy will be the first element to be discarded,” he said. “We don’t want a police state.”

Rekhess said the Palestinian call for democracy has to be put into perspective in a society unaccustomed to elections and the democratic process. Theirs is a society, for example, that has been executing people without legal redress for alleged collaboration with Israel, he pointed out.

Still, he said, the “radiation from Israeli democracy will make the Palestinians in the territories more inclined to insist on the democratic process, especially the younger generation.”

Hillel Frisch, a lecturer in political science at Hebrew University and an expert on the PLO, believes the local Fatah leadership is waging a losing battle, both for power and for democracy.

“These people will be powerless to stop the takeover of the outside over the inside,” in part because of the stature Arafat enjoys in the eyes of Israel, he said.

Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin gave the “inside,” or local leadership, support, but the locals did not “deliver the diplomatic goods” during the peace talks in Washington, “so he switched allegiance” to Tunis, said Frisch.

He believes that, at least in the short term, prospects for democracy among the Palestinians are very slim, and that both Arafat and Israel will play down the elections.

The friction that will ensue as a result of infighting and a delay in the elections is a cause for worry, said Rekhess, both for Palestinians and for Israelis. Israelis who are already expressing misgivings about the accord with the PLO, he said, will withdraw support completely if the PLO fails to gain control and deliver on its promises.

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