Islamic Radicals Gain In West Bank, Gaza
Slow progress on peace, misuse of funds, personality cult alienate PLO's base in occupied territories
WHEN Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) chief Yasser Arafat was found alive after his plane crashed recently, a wave of joyful relief swept over Palestinians in the Israeli-occupied territories.Skip to next paragraph
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But the popular euphoria that greeted their leader's survival masked the quickening rate at which Palestinians here are deserting the organization he heads, according to both PLO supporters and opponents, and foreign observers.
Hard-line Islamic groups such as Hamas, who will have no truck with Israel, are moving fast to capitalize on the defections attributed mostly to Arafat's willingness to negotiate with Israel.
"There is disillusion with the secular nationalist movement generally," says Ali Jarbawi, a teacher of politics at Bir Zeit University on the West Bank. "All of the groups that make it up, and its backbone, Fatah, are going through a crisis."
The evidence seems clear. In every election on the West Bank since the Middle East peace process began a year ago - in municipal chambers of commerce, student bodies, professional associations, and labor unions - Fatah and its secular allies have lost to Islamic-candidate slates.
"I don't think the death of secular nationalism and the rise of something else to take its place is a foregone conclusion," says a foreign analyst who monitors Palestinian politics. "But we are headed in that direction."
Three main causes are adduced to explain the growing unpopularity of the local political forces that have led the Palestinian struggle for more than a quarter of a century.
* A widening gap between ordinary Palestinians and the prominent personalities who represent them at the peace talks.
* Increasingly vocal anger at the misuse of money from abroad.
* General frustration at the lack of progress in the peace talks to which the PLO is committed.
As Palestinian delegates to the peace talks fly off to Washington every few weeks, many returning home in ever smarter suits, people enduring the grind of Israeli occupation in their villages and refugee camps find it hard to make their voices heard.
"The revolution has become a business of appointments rather than promotion, with decisions coming from the top down," argues Zakaria al-Qaq, a Palestinian political scientist critical of the local leadership.
Preoccupied with the talks and the international scene, leading personalities such as Faisal Husseini "have become more like diplomats who don't have much to do with the rest of the people in solving the ... problems in the territories," Mr. Jarbawi adds.
By contrast, boasts Muhammad Zahar, dean of the medical faculty at Gaza's Islamic University, "where the other system has failed to achieve any progress in meeting people's demands in the social and economic fields, Islam has done a lot, supporting poor people and providing good education."