Palestinian security feud heats up

Responding to a suicide bombing, Israeli forces killed four Hamas members Monday in Gaza.

After months of seemingly being in the background, Yasser Arafat has asserted his primacy in Palestinian politics at a critical moment in the Middle East conflict.

Following a Hamas bombing that killed 21 people in Jerusalem, US Secretary of State Colin Powell called publically last week on Mr. Arafat to make the security apparatus under his control available to Palestinian Authority (PA) Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas. But Arafat appears to have moved in the opposite direction, tightening his grasp on the forces.

"Yasser Arafat is sending a clear message that he is still the leader, he still has the legitimacy, and he is the symbol," says Mahdi Abdul-Hadi, director of the Palestinian Academic Society for the Study of International Affairs.

Through intricate internal politicking, analysts say, Arafat is clearly trying to curb the power of Mr. Abbas's security chief, Mohammed Dahlan.

This week Arafat has been trying to push through the central committee of his Fatah movement the appointment of an interior minister, Nasser Yusuf, to whom Mr. Dahlan would be subordinate.

And on Monday, the veteran leader created a new security post and gave it to his own loyalist, Jibril Rajoub - a step that could also fragment Dahlan's authority.

As the conflict with Israel moves toward ever fiercer escalation, Arafat's maneuverings on the internal front are seen as signals that he - and not the US or Abbas, whom it backs - calls the shots in Palestinian politics.

The US, though not the European Union, has for months shunned Arafat because of alleged ties to terror. He remains confined in his partly destroyed Ramallah headquarters, and is not allowed by Israel to travel outside that city.

Arafat's reminder of his clout comes at a time of acute crisis in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

Monday, vows of revenge resounded for four Hamas fighters killed by Israel on Sunday, again underscoring how far the two sides have traveled from the relative tranquility of a cease-fire. In the West Bank, Israeli troops have been conducting sweeps.

Israel says Arafat is standing in the way of a security crackdown by the PA against Hamas, although many Palestinian leaders say Israel's attacks have destroyed whatever public support there would be for that. Raanan Gissin, an adviser to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, said; "Under relentless international pressure Arafat can be forced to give up control of the security forces and if that happens there will be a solution. He needs to get a real ultimatum that if he does not stop scuttling the peace process, his immunity [from being expelled] will be removed."

PA Information Minister Nabil Amr plays down differences between Arafat and Abbas over the security forces, referring to them as "ways of arranging the internal Palestinian house."

But Mr. Abdul-Hadi says the struggle over security forces has long-standing implications, reflecting a resurgence of Arafat's historic dominance. He says Abbas's standing is waning due to the collapse of the cease-fire and his inability to improve living conditions in the occupied territories, and he predicts Abbas will soon resign. Amr says that is "baseless."

"People will now go back to the old thesis of Arafat, that the real issue is the battle with the Israelis, that internal politics does not count compared to what the settlers are doing and what is happening to Al Aqsa [Mosque]. What Arafat is now saying is: 'I control the security forces, I am the boss, how we organize the furniture inside our house is my business. The real danger is outside.' "

Arafat's allies are drawing on a wide sense that he is the victim of US and Israeli efforts to oust him. They are now suggesting that wresting security forces from him and transferring them to Abbas and Dahlan is the equivalent of caving in to foreign dictates.

"Unity of the security branches should be in the fashion the Palestinians choose, not in a fashion imposed on them," PA Communications Minister Azzam Ahmad said in an interview with the Lebanese Broadcasting Corporation Sunday night. "Taking authority from President Arafat or others is not the right of any force outside the Palestinian sphere. It is possible to have the unity of the security apparatuses under the [control of] the president."

Although Abbas, and by extension Dahlan, gained control of some of the branches when the government was announced in April, Arafat retained branches known as National Security Forces, General Intelligence, and Military Intelligence.

"Arafat does not want to give his powers to [Abbas]. What would remain for him?" says Hafez Barghouthi, editor of the PA's Al Hayat al-Jadida newspaper.

He predicts that Arafat will continue to oppose transferring the security forces unless the US changes its policy towards him. "Nothing will change until the Americans recognize Arafat," he says.

Khalil Shikaki, director of the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research, says that American calls for regime change, its shunning of Arafat, and its going along with Israel's siege of his compound made Arafat wary of Powell's appeal.

"He sees the taking away of the security services as part of a US-Israeli attempt to sideline him completely and put an end to his historic role. There is no doubt the essential issue here is Arafat's own survival."

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