PALESTINE Liberation Organization Chairman Yasser Arafat, battling to retain support for his peace deal with Israel, appears to be losing influence in his dominant Fatah faction of the PLO.
Recent attempts by Mr. Arafat to use Fatah to shore up his support in the face of a sustained challenge from Islamic militants appear to have backfired.
Militant Fatah youth from the occupied territories and veteran PLO exiles made it clear that they would not be part of a direct confrontation with the Islamic Resistance Movement, Hamas.
Fatah thus increased its influence on the peace process and imposed a rare check on Arafat's power as head of the Palestinian Authority (PA), the PLO-dominated self-rule council.
Following the Nov. 18 violent clash between Arafat's Palestinian police and Islamic extremists in Gaza City, in which at least 14 people died, Fatah came to the PLO leader's aid by organizing large pro-Arafat demonstrations intended to deter Hamas from further attacks on the PA.
Hamas, opposed to the peace deal with Israel, had asked Arafat to resign after the clash in Gaza.
But his bid to place Fatah in the position of countering the Islamists soon foundered, as younger leaders in the territories and senior leaders in exile refused a showdown with Hamas.
``We will never allow Fatah to become a whip in the hand of any person in power,'' says Fatah Central Committee member Sakher Habash. At least five out of the 14 Central Committee members held Arafat's PA responsible for the shootout, which resulted from Israeli demands for Arafat to rein in the militant group.
The Central Committee, Fatah's ruling body in Tunis, said that Arafat had gone too far. ``Dragging Fatah into a confrontation with Hamas means dragging the Palestinan people into a civil war,'' Mr. Habash says.
This position indicates that Arafat's main opposition may not be from the Islamists, but from within his own movement.
Arafat sought to boost his position by authorizing first-ever elections on Nov. 4 in Ramallah - considered the center of political life in the West Bank. But his plan backfired when his critics won the elections, indicating Fatah is not solidly behind Arafat.
Arafat had called for regional Fatah elections in each town of the West Bank, but the outcome of the Ramallah elections prompted him to put off other regional elections.
``If the elections had continued, the polticians would have certainly been removed, and fighters would have prevailed,'' says Ahmed al-Deek, a member of the West Bank's Fatah Higher Committee -
a committee appointed by Arafat to run Fatah in the West Bank.
Arafat co-founded Fatah in 1956 to liberate Palestine through an armed struggle against Israel. Fatah originally embraced all political and religious ideologies of Palestinians. It's initial slogan was ``freedom and return'' for the Palestinian people to Palestine. But Fatah has adopted a more pragmatic platform over the last two decades that culminated in the 1988 call for the establishment of a Palestinian state alongside Israel.
But the Israeli-Palestinian self-rule agreement, signed in Washington on Sept. 13, 1993, was negotiated and reached without the knowledge and support of most senior Fatah leaders.
Arafat relied on two of his Tunis-based Fatah leaders to work out the self-rule deal: Ahmed Qreia, known as Abu Ala, currently serves as Economy Minister in the PA. But Mahmoud Abbas, who signed the agreement in Washington, no longer supports Arafat.
Major Central Committee members refused to participate in the PA and have rallied behind veteran Fatah leader and co-founder Farouk Kaddoumi, who resides in Tunis and has refused to take a position in the PA.
Fatah has not called for thwarting the self-rule agreement altogether. But according to interviews with Fatah leaders, it is trying to influence the course of the negotiations and the PA's policies.
``We support a peaceful settlement, but we do not support the Oslo terms,'' says Abbass Zaki, an Amman-based Central Committee member.
Fatah claims credit
So far Fatah's opposition, including Central Committee members and younger organizers in the West Bank and Gaza, claim credit for two major points. They say they were able to prevent Arafat from giving in to Israeli demands to change the Palestinian charter by eliminating several clauses that essentially call for the destruction of Israel. And they stopped Arafat from placing Fatah in a showdown with Hamas.
But according to Habash, ``Our aim is not to overpower the PA, but to ensure that the Israeli efforts to prevent the establishment of a Palestinian state fail.''
Many Fatah members in the West Bank, Gaza Strip, and Amman say Fatah is mainly concerned in consolidating its position so that it can influence the PA and take over if the peace process with Israel collapses.
They say that many have concluded that Arafat's role will not last for long, and Fatah then should be in a position to negotiate a better deal for the Palestinians.
Neither Kaddoumi, Zaki, Habash, nor the young leaders say that explictly.
But in an interview with Zaki, he indicated that Arafat is losing ground.
``He who drops the gun against Israel has no legitimacy,'' he said. Zaki also said that the only reason some Fatah rank and file ``appease the PA was to survive this Israeli-controlled era.''
In his view, this era will not last for long, and Fatah will prevail again. As for Arafat, Fatah members say privately that they will do their best to protect him. But if he goes down, he is not going to take the movement with him.