Is the PLO Prepared to Govern? Some Fear Chaos As Israelis Withdraw

Israeli and Palestinian skeptics here charge the Palestine Liberation Organization with being unprepared to assume the authority in the Gaza Strip and Jericho that is being relinquished this week by Israel.

They fear internal political chaos, an inability to meet popular Palestinian expectations, a failure to control terrorism and crippling funding shortfalls.

For their part, PLO officials concede they do not yet have the administrative mechanisms in place and they have no money, but they defend their readiness to rule.

Meanwhile, some Israeli analysts say they expect a difficult transition but are confident the new authority will function.

The self-rule agreement expected to be signed this week calls for an orchestrated transfer of power from Israeli to Palestinian hands over what is anticipated to be a period of a few weeks.

But so far, no Palestinian department heads have been named to take over the 38 civilian departments that need to be transferred to Palestinian control.

The Israel Defense Force chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Ehud Barak, reportedly told the Cabinet this week that Israeli soldiers “should get out (of Gaza and Jericho) as soon as possible. There is nobody on the other side with whom to make an orderly transition of authority.”

Environment Minister Yossi Sarid also expressed disappointment and worry, saying Israel had urged the Palestinians to step into the territories “ready to start taking over,” but “they did not do that.

“I am worried, I am troubled. But the responsibility will be on the Palestinians. That is the idea behind the agreement,” Sarid told reporters.

WATER SHORTAGES MAY OCCUR IN GAZA

Even the water commissioner got into the act. Gideon Sur said this week that despite the announcement of the establishment of a Palestinian Water Authority, it has shown no signs of life and the lack of water management might cause a water shortage in Gaza.

“The PLO has been making a lot of plans to assume control but we are not able to take steps on the ground (to implement them) until Israel withdraws,” said Maen Areikat, press officer for PLO Fatah leader Faisal Husseini at his Orient House headquarters in east Jerusalem.

“Building our institutions,” he said, “will (now) be our priority.”

Areikat pointed to the recent establishment by PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat of a new Palestinian National Authority, an interim caretaker council slated to function as a Cabinet under Arafat until elections are held.

But the numbers and composition of the authority have not been finalized, he noted. Nor have the names of the 38 civilian department heads, he said.

Still, signs of a transfer of authority will be visible immediately. “The police force will start pouring into both areas within 12 to 24 hours after the signing,” he said. “They will take over certain responsibilities and fill the gaps.”

‘WE WANT TO SUCCEED’

But, “there is anxiety about whether our authority will be ready (and) pass the test” of leadership, he conceded. “We are about to experience something new and we know we’ll be watched and monitored and we want to succeed.”

Zakaria al Qaq, co-director of the Israel/Palestine Center for Research and Information in Jerusalem, is cynical and fearful about the consequences of what he views as a failure of the Palestinians to prepare for their new administration.

“I think there will be a state of chaos,” said al Qaq, who said he has seen no “tangible (PLO) preparations” for government except for a “big emphasis on the police.”

He also faults the PLO leadership for not properly preparing the public for the difficulties ahead. “It gave them high expectations in order to sell the agreement, so that people expect to get a job, solve their prolonged problems and see prosperity materialize overnight.

“After one month,” he said, “people will discover (reality is different) and will be frustrated.”

Areikat disputes this. “We are a realistic people,” he said. The Palestinians “know that creating a different life will be a long and painful process.”

The autonomy agreement will succeed or fail on the question of whether Palestinians can rule the area, Ori Orr, chairman of the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, told reporters in his office this week.

“The majority of our intelligence sources think they can take control and rule the area, but this is still the main question,” he said. In any case, “after we sign, we’ll pull out our troops and let them handle their lives,” he said.

Eli Rckhess, an analyst with the Dayan Center for Middle East Research in Tel Aviv, said there is a tendency to exaggerate the unpreparedness of the PLO and it should be resisted.

“There is an agreed-upon process of organized Israeli withdrawal,” he said. “There won’t be a sudden vacuum.”

Rekhess believes the performance of the new administration will not be “monolithic.” Rather, it will have its strengths and weaknesses.

“Certain areas will function excellently,” such as security, in which Arafat has the biggest stake. “The immediate test for the PLO is control — to neutralize opposition groups and (impose) law and order inside Gaza and Jericho,” said Rekhess.

He also foresees little problems administering health care, where there already is an infrastructure.

But Rekhess is less optimistic about fiscal management “because it’s new.”

“The PLO (has) run out of money to support its institutions,” said Areikat, and Arafat is seeking $120 million to run the operations of the new Palestinian entity.

Areikat said he hopes “all the political developments will open the door for” enough of the money that was pledged last fall “to help the Palestinians feel the difference.”

Last October, after the signing of the Israeli-PLO declaration of principles, the United States organized a meeting of 40 donor countries, which pledged $2.4 billion to support the new Palestinian entity. This week, the World Bank announced the first installment of that pledge — a $1.2 billion aid package to be distributed over the next three years.

Also this week, a report was released by the Geneva-based International Labor Organization warning that the PLO must create thousands of jobs immediately to ensure social stability or it will jeopardize the autonomy administration.

Rekhess foresees chaos over what he calls the “very complicated leadership picture,” in part because of the tussle for control between the Tunis “outsiders” and the grass-roots local leadership.

But the chaos is an inherent part of the PLO’s “difficult transformation from national liberation movement” to a “quasi-state apparatus,” he observed.

Rekhess stressed that in the face of this potential chaos, the significance of the agreement’s implementation in and of itself, should not be overlooked.

“After all,” he said, “it is withdrawal and a Palestinian takeover of Palestinian territory.”

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