Chaos Erupts in Gaza As Reformists Jockey with Arafat for Control of P.A.

It is the worst internal crisis for the Palestinian Authority since its birth 10 years ago. For Yasser Arafat, it’s another fight for his political life as the P.A. president faces a direct threat to his longtime, authoritarian rule of the Palestinians.

But this time the stakes are higher, and they go beyond Arafat: At stake is the survival of the Palestinian Authority.

The authority is facing complete anarchy.

The chaos was set off over the weekend when several dozen armed men, members of Arafat’s own Fatah faction, committed what clearly was an act of rebellion against their leader: They ambushed the motorcade of the P.A. police chief in Gaza, longtime Arafat ally Ghazi Jabali, and kidnapped him.

The rebels refused to release Jabali until Arafat agreed to fire him for corruption. Arafat eventually agreed, and Jabali was freed.

Kidnappings continued throughout the weekend, as well as a series of other incidents that t! hreatened to deprive Arafat of his hold on the increasingly chaotic Gaza Strip, which Israeli troops and settlers are due to leave in 2005.

Another P.A. official was kidnapped, along with five French volunteers. All were eventually freed following Arafat’s intervention.

Two senior officials, Rashid abu Shbak, head of the P.A. preventive security force, and Amin al-Hindi, head of the P.A.’s general intelligence service, handed in their resignations over the weekend, protesting “the absence of reforms and the continuation of a state of anarchy in the Gaza Strip.”

But Arafat’s dismissal of Jabali — seemingly an agreement to institute reforms — turned out to be deceptive.

Over the weekend, Arafat fired reformer Abdel Razek Al-Majaideh from his post as director of general security for the West Bank and Gaza Strip because Majaideh had called for political reform. Arafat replaced him with Mousa Arafat, a nephew who commands the much-reviled Palestinian military intel! ligence service and is widely accused of corruption.

The appointmen t fueled reformists’ anger. Riots ensued, with masked vigilantes from Arafat’s own Fatah faction clashing with Mousa Arafat loyalists in Gaza. Some 3,000 demonstrators took to the streets Saturday night to demand the reversal of Mousa Arafat’s appointment.

Early Sunday, members of the Al-Aksa Brigades, the terrorist wing of Fatah — and who used to be close to the P.A. leader — released prisoners held inside Mousa Arafat’s headquarters in the city of Khan Younis, in southern Gaza, and set the command post on fire.

On Monday, Arafat was forced to rehire Majaideh and put him above his nephew.

In the meantime, P.A. Prime Minister Ahmed Qurei handed in his resignation, but Arafat refused to accept it.

The P.A. Cabinet set a meeting for Monday to try to stabilize the situation. Qurei reportedly said he would renege on his resignation only if Arafat gave him some real power.

The demonstrations, violence and political chaos reflected deep frustration among Pales! tinians and some P.A. officials over widespread corruption in the Palestinian Authority, mass unemployment, a state of lawlessness in Palestinian cities and little hope that anything would change in the near future.

For Arafat, it’s a moment of truth. Not unlike his decision to leave Beirut in 1982 following the Israeli siege, Arafat now must choose between bowing to reformists’ pressure in Gaza — which could mean giving up his authoritarian rule — and holding his ground, which could lead to all-out confrontation with his opponents in the Gaza Strip.

Compounding the internal crisis, Arafat also needs to take into account his worsening reputation abroad. Just last week, Terje Roed-Larsen, the U.N. special coordinator for the Middle East peace process and a long-time Arafat backer, assailed him for doing nothing to stop Palestinian terrorism.

“The P.A., despite consistent promises by its leadership, has made no progress on its core obligation to take immediate ac! tion on the ground to end violence and combat terror and to reform and reorganize the Palestinian Authority,” Roed-Larsen said in a speech at the United Nations. “All those who yearn for peace have already and repeatedly argued that President Arafat, in public and in private, take immediate action to restore this diminished credibility.”

Though other parts of Roed-Larsen’s speech were harshly critical of Israel’s failure to uproot illegal settlement outposts, he was declared “persona non grata” in the Palestinian territories.

“Terje Roed-Larsen’s statement is not objective. As of today he is an unwelcome person in Palestinian territories,” Nabil Abu Rudeineh, a senior Arafat adviser, told Reuters.

Arafat’s support is sinking fast, and nowhere faster than at home.

“President Arafat is responsible for this situation,” said Sufian abu-Zaidah, a senior Fatah leader. “We’ve had enough and we insist on real reforms. We are fed up with this method of administration.”

Abu-Zaidah expressed the widespread notion that Palestinians are w! illing to accept Arafat as a national symbol but are sick and tired of having him be a national tyrant.

More than any other single figure, the man behind the unrest in Gaza seems to be Mohammad Dahlan. More than two years ago, Dahlan resigned his post as P.A. minister of internal security and since then has maintained a stance of passive opposition to Arafat.

Dahlan, 43, is considered Arafat’s strongest rival in the Palestinian Authority, and the unrest in Gaza is part of jockeying within the Palestinian Authority for control of Gaza once the Israelis leave.

Despite his strong position in Gaza, Dahlan himself faces strong opposition. Because the Israelis and Americans appear to favor him to keep the peace in Gaza once Israel withdraws, many Palestinians find him suspect.

Dahlan has not been vocal during this latest crisis, but he sees the impending Israeli withdrawal as an opportunity to restore his control of law and order in the strip. At a recent speech in G! aza, Dahlan said Palestinians either could build a model for administr ation in Gaza, or embrace “chaos and destruction.”

The battleground now is divided between Gaza and the West Bank. Kidnappings, arrests, release of prisoners and mass demonstrations are becoming commonplace in Gaza, while the political battleground is Ramallah, where Arafat rules from the ruins of his compound.

It is Arafat vs. Dahlan, the old guard from Tunisia vs. the younger generation of intifada activists, chaos vs. reform.

Palestinians are well aware that last weekend’s unrest only fortifies the Israeli argument that there is no real partner on the Palestinian side.

“When someone like Ariel Sharon beats us in the information campaign, this means we have really failed, and we need to do some real soul-searching,” legislator Kadura Fares said.

Last week, Israel’s Foreign Ministry discussed several possible scenarios that could follow Arafat’s death. The theoretical exercise triggered an angry reaction from Arafat, who saw it as an indirect threat on his l! ife.

Not surprisingly, the ministry predicted that Arafat’s death would be followed by a state of anarchy.

Judging by last weekend’s events, anarchy already has set in as Arafat fights — once again — for his political life.

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