Experts say Arafat’s in control


JERUSALEM, March 19 (JTA) – Yasser Arafat was caught by surprise when the first Palestinian intifada, or uprising, erupted in 1987.

At the time, PLO leader Arafat and his top commanders were headquartered in Tunisia. The intifada was the work of a younger generation of Palestinians living in the West Bank and Gaza Strip who dictated the Middle East agenda for years to come.

The Palestinians’ second uprising, the “Al-Aksa Intifada” that erupted six months ago, is a different story.

Several Palestinian officials, including Communications Minister Imad Falouji, admitted recently that the present wave of violence was planned well in advance, and that Arafat ordered it up after the failure of last July’s Camp David summit.

According to the Palestinian officials’ statements, the visit that then- opposition leader and now Prime Minister Ariel Sharon made to Jerusalem’s Temple Mount on Sept. 28 – far from being the intolerable provocation that caused the violence, as Palestinians claimed at the time – was only a pretext to begin the violence that had been awaiting Arafat’s cue.

Some analysts believe Sharon’s visit was a godsend for Arafat, who was threatened by popular anger at the corruption and ineptitude of the Palestinian Authority.

“I have it from reliable Palestinian sources” that the Palestinian public was readying itself to fight “not against Israel, but against the corrupt regime of Arafat,” Professor Yosef Ginat, a senior lecturer at the Israel Studies Department of Haifa University and a veteran observer of the Palestinian scene, told JTA this week.

“Prior to September 28, Palestinian friends told me that you, Israelis, should help us act against our corrupt leaders.”

But as things turned out, Sharon’s visit enabled Arafat to divert public rage from himself to Israel – and gain international sympathy and a crucial sheen of legitimacy for the uprising.

Baffled by the violent response to an unprecedentedly conciliatory peace proposal from Israel’s most dovish government, Israeli experts pondered Arafat’s motives.

One theory was that the uprising allowed Arafat – who glories in his image as a revolutionary leader and continues to appear exclusively in military uniform eight years into the Oslo process – to pave the path to an independent Palestinian state with blood, sweat and tears, to win a state by force and sacrifice rather than Israeli benevolence.

Even if Arafat did give the initial order, however, the question remains whether he is still in control of the violence half a year later.

Has the intifada slipped from Arafat’s grasp? Is a younger generation of Palestinians again taking control of the uprising?

Israeli policy-makers are not quite sure.

Marwan Barghouti provides the most conspicuous example of what would appear to be Arafat’s diminishing authority.

Until the outbreak of violence last September, Barghouti was the obscure leader of the equally obscure Tanzim organization, the West Bank militia of Arafat’s Fatah Party.

Since the start of the violence, however, Barghouti has soared to prominence, orchestrating the bulk of military operations against Israelis and Israeli targets around Jerusalem, issuing belligerent threats and exhorting Palestinians to continued militancy.

Although he frequently pledges loyalty to Arafat, Barghouti nonetheless has said that he would disobey an order from Arafat to hold fire. No such order has been forthcoming, but the fact is that comments like Barghouti’s were unheard of in the past.

A recent public opinion poll, conducted by a Palestinian research institute, showed that backing for Arafat has shrunk to as low as 35 percent of the Palestinian public.

Most Palestinians still respect Arafat, who is a symbol of the nation to an extent that leaders in democratic societies cannot be. But various groups are girding themselves for the power struggle that will take place after Arafat, now 72 and in uncertain health, is gone.

In addition to the Tanzim, these armed groups include:

• Force 17, which is responsible for the personal protection of Arafat and Palestinian ministers;

• The Preventive Security Service, or Palestinian secret service, headed by Mohammad Dahlan in the Gaza Strip and Jibril Rajoub in the West Bank;

• the intelligence service, headed by Amin al-Hindi;

• Arafat’s mainstream Fatah Party;

• the Shabiba, the Fatah youth organization; and

• the Palestinian police force, which includes tens of thousands of armed men.

On paper, each of these groups has its own area of responsibility and is subordinate to Arafat and the Palestinian Authority Cabinet.

In reality, however, each is in competition with the others, and the intifada has provided each one with an excellent opportunity to prove its worth to the Palestinian public.

In addition to these competing groups, there also are Islamic militant groups – Hamas and Islamic Jihad – eager to take a leading role in the violent confrontation with Israel.

The complexity of the situation has made it difficult for Israel to deal with the Palestinian population.

“If Arafat is not in control,” Zvi Bar’el wrote in the Israeli daily Ha’aretz, ” there is no point in pressuring the civilian population, because it has no accountable authority.”

However, if Arafat is in control, then Israel likewise cannot pressure the local population because “one can hardly expect the civilian population to come out against its leadership.”

Even Israel’s top military experts do not agree whether Arafat is in control of the uprising.

Two weeks ago, Lt. Gen. Ya’acov Orr, the government coordinator of affairs in the territories, told the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee that the Palestinian Authority is collapsing.

He said that Palestinian institutions responsible for public order – such as the police, courts, education and health services, as well most government ministries – no longer are functioning.

A week later, however, Lt. Gen. Amos Malka, the head of army intelligence, told the same committee that for the time being there was no sign of “an imminent collapse of the P.A.”

Malka said Arafat is still in charge, even if he does not go into the details of each and every operation directed against Israel.

Yet Arafat has built a career out of bluffs and feigned weakness, and his historic foes – such as Sharon – believe the apparent chaos in Palestinian areas is part of the pattern.

Encouraging the “Lebanonization” of the Palestinian territories – creating competing but limited power bases that confuse observers as to the real source of power – allows Arafat both to dodge blame for the violence and plead impotence when asking for international aid and forbearance.

Sharon insists that Arafat continues to exercise overall strategic control of the Palestinian uprising, and thus must be held accountable for the violence.

Some top Israeli analysts, like Ehud Ya’ari, the Arab affairs correspondent of Channel One TV, also believe Arafat is strong enough to order a cease-fire “within a matter of hours.”

Ginat of Haifa University also is confident that “Arafat is in control, and all those who believe differently are being misled by him.”

Those who believe that Arafat is still firmly in command note that he strengthened his position when he ordered the mass release of Hamas terrorists from Palestinian jails last fall, a move that enabled him to achieve a high degree of coordination with Hamas, his main opposition.

If Arafat does indeed retain a firm grip on power, he does not look likely to rein in the uprising any time soon.

Despite a relatively moderate speech before Palestinian lawmakers earlier this month – when Arafat declared that the Palestinian Authority is still committed to peace as “a strategic option” – there is little hope in Jerusalem that Arafat will order a cease-fire within the next few weeks.

Arafat wants to appear before an Arab summit slated to be held in Jordan later this month as the hero of the Palestinian revolution.

For the time being, it appears, he would rather put his “peace of the brave” on hold.

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