Arafat faces rising challenge in Gaza

A weekend of kidnappings and violence underscores tensions as rival groups jockey for influence in advance of Israeli withdrawal.

Yasser Arafat has weathered many crises in his 35 years as the leader of the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO), but this is one storm from which he may find it difficult to recover.

President Arafat is caught in a whirlwind that began to spin out of control over a weekend of near anarchy in the Gaza Strip. His chief police commander there was kidnapped Friday, as were four French aid workers. On Saturday, his prime minister, Ahmed Qureia, tendered his resignation. By Sunday, Mr. Arafat's decision to appoint his cousin as head of Gaza's security in place of the deposed police chief was met with outrage by young activists and members of his Fatah faction of the PLO.

Slipping toward a new nadir, Palestinians say that their leader will survive only by forcing a sea change in his 10-year-old Palestinian Authority, not by simply shifting around members of the same crew.

"The solution must be more radical than that - the change of a few people," says Hafez Barghouthi, editor of Al Hayat Al Jadida newspaper in Ramallah.

"We are very tired of the same faces, the same ministers, the same security chiefs, the same politicians," says Mr. Barghouthi. "If Arafat wants to have success, he must take other measures, not just put his relatives into place here and there. Give the intelligentsia or some other people a chance. Things must change drastically, and until now, no changes been made."

They are pointed words, coming as they do from a paper founded primarily as a platform for the Palestinian Authority's party line. And they represent the degree to which the margin of error that Arafat has with Palestinians is narrowing, and how quickly and deftly he must act if he is to regain control over the 3.8 million Palestinians of the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

For several months, it has been clear that Gaza, the long-troubled slice of land from which Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has promised to withdraw in the near future, would test the Palestinian leadership's ability to assert control.

What is only now becoming apparent is that groups jostling for power in the Gaza of tomorrow are not waiting until the last Israeli settlers and soldiers are pulled out. Instead, they are trying to establish their supremacy as soon as possible.

But those efforts, as well as the widespread resentment over corruption and lack of reform, are spiraling into a situation that Mr. Qureia deplored as "unprecedented chaos."

Even after a meeting between the two top Palestinian officials in Ramallah Sunday, Qureia refused Arafat's attempts to bring him back to his post. A final decision on his resignation appeared to be pushed off until a Palestinian cabinet meeting expected Monday.

In addition to the turmoil in Gaza within Arafat's Fatah faction and the bouts of arm-wrestling over control of the seaside strip when Israel leaves, Arafat and Qureia have been contending with a diplomatic debacle in the Palestinians' relations with the United Nations. The UN's special envoy to the Palestinians, Terje Roed-Larson, delivered a speech in New York recently that painted a grim picture of the state of governance in the Palestinian Authority. Soon thereafter, senior PA officials announced that Mr. Roed-Larson was "persona non grata" and would not be welcome back into the Palestinian territories - the diplomatic equivalent of telling the UN's senior ambassador here to take a hike.

The growing restlessness with the existing leadership and its lack of reforms have put the spotlight on Mohammed Dahlan. Once Arafat's young protégé and right-hand security man, his rising profile has spurred speculation as to whether he is causing some of the unrest in Gaza. But others argue that Mr. Dahlan, who was once in Arafat's cabinet, is no poster child for the anticorruption efforts of the young firebrands behind the weekend's kidnappings.

"This is an internal struggle for power, of vying for the future - for being in control after an Israeli withdrawal, if it happens," says Ziad Abu Amr, a Palestinian legislator from Gaza City and a political scientist. "The matter of fact is that there is an absence of law enforcement and an inability to enforce decisions. The whole leadership is paralyzed."

Although the Palestinian Authority's now-deposed police chief, Ghazi Jabali, was kidnapped on Friday, followed by four French aid workers, all were released unharmed. The militants who held Mr. Jabali belonged to a local Gaza cell of the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades - making them an offshoot of Arafat's own Fatah faction. The captors made Jabali read a videotaped statement admitting to crime including embezzling millions in government money and sexually assaulting women.

Arafat negotiated for the police chief's release and then dismissed him, immediately appointing his nephew, Moussa Arafat, who is also the chief of military intelligence. But the move inflamed the situation in Gaza, where Arafat has declared a state of emergency. Overnight, members of the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades attacked the building housing Palestinian security forces under the younger Arafat's command and burned it down.

"He's very unpopular," says one Palestinian political source who asked not to be named. "He's worse than Jabali."

Several Palestinians called on Arafat to recall the changes. "Moussa Arafat's appointment will not pass, and he must submit his resignation," the Brigades said in a statement, Reuters reported. The commander of the Palestinian coast guard, Juma Ghali, also tendered his resignation, serving the Palestinian leader another embarrassing desertion.

Qureia was one of the key brokers of the Oslo Peace Accords more than a decade ago. If he resigns, he will be the second top Palestinian official to do so. Last September, Mahmoud Abbas, or Abu Mazen, also resigned after taking on the job as the first Palestinian prime minister. He complained that he hadn't been given the political leeway to do the job.

Many Palestinians say that Arafat also lacks such elbow room. He has not been able to leave Ramallah for more than two years, confined to his compound by Mr. Sharon, who blames him for fomenting violence and launching the new intifada in September 2000.

"The problem is, Arafat is under siege. He cannot move, so people are working in the field as they want, and so the situation in Gaza is now very bad," Barghouthi says. "The Israeli military has made it impossible for him to go to another area, so it makes it possible for armed groups to take control in other areas, and it makes the Palestinian Authority weaker," he says. "The Israelis may not have much to do with what's happening in Gaza, but they created the atmosphere for this."

Prime Minister Sharon disagrees, taking the stand that if his plan of disengagement is leading to disintegration, that's Arafat's problem. The current turmoil, Sharon says, proves what he's been promoting for quite a while: that Israel has no partner with whom to talk peace.

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