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Between Moderates and Terrorists, Little Reform in Arafat’s Fatah Party

As Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat approaches age 75, things have gotten lonelier for him at the top.

Last week, the Palestinian Authority president lost another of his old-time comrades.

On March 1, masked Palestinian gunmen shot dead Khalil Zebin, 59, a member of the old guard of Arafat’s ruling Fatah movement. Zebin had been a member of Arafat’s inner circle in Tunis, and had served as Arafat’s media adviser and later as the P.A. human rights commissioner.

Palestinian sources in Gaza opined that Zebin’s killing was part of a “score- settling confrontation” among competing Fatah factions.

The murder was the latest in a series of events reflecting a state of near- anarchy in Fatah, which effectively controls the Palestinian Authority.

The movement is undergoing one of the deepest crises in its 39-year history.

Hatem Abdul Kader, a Fatah-affiliated member of the Palestinian legislative council from Jerusalem, says the movement is at a crossroads.

“There is a need for reform — financial, strategic, everything,” he said. “We can’t put everything on the shoulders of the occupation.”

This was the reining sentiment at a conference of Fatah’s 126-member Revolutionary Council, which ended early last week. The council was meeting for the first time in three years, though its constitution calls for meetings every three months.

The nicely worded decisions that came out of the conference belie the true state of the organization: It is caught at an impasse, with no end in sight to its crisis.

The council, the second highest body in Fatah after the Central Committee, is comprised of Arafat loyalists who came back from exile to the West Bank and Gaza Strip after the Oslo agreements were signed in 1993. None of them was elected.

The two main items on the agenda at the group’s recent meeting were the demand for electoral reform within Fatah and the need to enforce party discipline on the Al-Aksa Brigade, Fatah’s terrorist wing. The conference reflected a power struggle between Fatah’s young and old guards as well as between political moderates who advocate negotiations with Israel and the radical, rejectionist militants.

The result of the four-day marathon meeting was a decision to hold a party convention and internal elections within a year.

According to Fatah bylaws, a vote should take place every five years, but the last Fatah election took place 15 years ago, when the bulk of the movement’s influential leadership was based abroad, mostly in Tunis.

Arafat said he was committed to bringing new blood into Fatah, based on “democratic steps.”

That may sound good, but it grants Arafat yet another year of political maneuvering, postponing any real reform.

Critics said the move on elections was a tactical decision Arafat took to appease disgruntled elements within the party, especially among the younger generation.

The real question, council members say, is whether any reforms will be implemented in the movement that leads the moribund Palestinian Authority.

Mustafa Barghouti, a Palestinian human rights activist and harsh critic of Arafat, charges that the P.A.’s main surviving function is to protect the privileged Fatah elite.

In recent years, Arafat has learned to cope with such criticism even within his own Fatah party. For the time being, however, it’s just talk: With Arafat intimidating all potential challengers, he has no successor.

Once again, Arafat managed to stave off attempts to curtail his own power and influence.

Former P.A. security minister Mohammed Dahlan, another Arafat critic, gave the Palestinian leader the benefit of the doubt.

“His promise to hold leadership elections is a positive step in response to demands of the rank and file,” Dahlan said.

Meanwhile, new discord erupted between Arafat and his erstwhile adviser Nasser Yousef, who had been slated to head the P.A. security apparatus.

When Yousef voiced doubts about the effectiveness of Palestinian security services and pressed for genuine reforms in the security agencies, Arafat exploded. He threw the microphone he was holding at Yousef, calling him “a spy and a traitor.”

Yousef shot back by calling Arafat “a senile old man,” and threw a pen at him.

Following the shouting match, Arafat stormed out of the meeting.

Such open challenges to Arafat’s leadership were unthinkable before the intifada.

The immediate trigger for convening Fatah’s Revolutionary Council was the collective resignation a month ago of some 350 Fatah members protesting the lack of political reform, rampant corruption with the Palestinian Authority and the leadership’s failure to challenge Israel’s military presence in the disputed territories.

“Fatah is beginning to disintegrate as a result of internal contradictions. Fatah is not united,” the collective letter of resignation said. “Fatah, as it stands today, is leading us toward tribalism, internal conflict and a bottomless pit.”

The mass resignation amounted to an open revolt against Arafat. Hussein Sheik, Fatah’s secretary in the West Bank, described the statement as a “warning bell.”

“We should not ignore this wide schism between the movement’s base and its leadership bodies,” Sheikh said.

But Arafat indeed ignored it, continuing with his business-as-usual approach.

The Revolutionary Council meeting also was unable to ease the tension between Fatah’s political wing and its terrorist wing.

The political leadership has called for a partial cessation of violence, but the Al-Aksa Brigade continues to launch terrorist attacks.

The council decided to confine so-called military operations to the West Bank and Gaza Strip, saying it did not endorse attacks on Israeli civilians. That does not include Jewish residents of the West Bank and Gaza, however.

But the Al-Aksa Brigade has a record of ignoring similar decisions in the past. As far as the group is concerned, the armed struggle against Israel will continue on all possible fronts.

As recently as Feb. 22, a brigade member blew himself up aboard an Israeli bus in Jerusalem, killing eight Israelis and injuring dozens. The bombing occurred just as the Palestinian Authority was spearheading a diplomatic effort in advance of hearings on Israel’s West Bank security fence at the International Court of Justice at The Hague.

The Al-Aksa Brigade has grown more militant as the intifada has dragged on.

Two years ago, in January 2002, the brigade decided to try to match its Islamic fundamentalist rivals, Hamas and Islamic Jihad, with suicide bombings of its own.

Now the brigade is cooperating with the other terrorist groups. All three cooperated in a suicide bombing operation last weekend, when Palestinians disguised as Israeli soldiers tried to attack an Israel Defense Forces outpost at the Erez crossing between Israel and Gaza. The attack was a fiasco, leaving six Palestinians dead.

Public opinion polls in the past three years have shown time and again that the majority of Palestinians support the conflicting goals of negotiations with Israel and continued violence.

The party keeps tilting back and forth between terrorism, represented by the Al-Aksa Brigade, and relative moderation. Arafat stays in the middle, steering his rocking, pitching boat far from any safe haven.

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