Arafat faces generational crisis

A Palestinian power struggle is epitomized by the young man who runs Jenin.

Zakaria Zubeidi was preparing a bomb two years ago when it blew up, leaving his anger written all over his face in the form of small black pockmarks.

In his circle, Mr. Zubeidi's startling appearance makes the 28-year-old leader of this city's Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades - a militant offshoot of Yasser Arafat's Fatah faction - more commanding, like wearing his stripes across his face instead of on his epaulets.

Despite his youth, Zubeidi is widely considered the most powerful man in Jenin, or at least the most feared. The Al Aqsa Brigades are a network of guerrilla groups which sprang up after the start of the new intifada in September 2000. The self-set agenda of such groups, as well as countless other militant cells, constitutes part of the challenge to Mr. Arafat's authority now coming to a crescendo in the Gaza Strip. If Zubeidi's defiance is any sign, the aging Palestinian leader can expect a more youthful generation of compatriots increasingly fed up with almost everything.

"I don't take orders from anyone. I'm not good at following," Zubeidi says in an interview at one of the militant group's hideouts in Jenin. As he speaks, comrades - some carrying M-16s - filter in and out of the room. For a young man who dropped out after the 9th grade - he says the Israeli army threw him in prison for throwing a Molotov cocktail and he never went back to school - he speaks with the fluidity and confidence of someone who expects the world to listen closely.

"Even if we hear people saying 'we're tired of the intifada, we want to quit,' fine," says Zubeidi. "We have another generation coming that will fight even better. We started off with rocks and now we have Kassem rockets. Next time we'll be firing missiles at each other."

To the south, in Ramallah, Palestinian President Arafat, is struggling to keep a grip on a political and security situation that appears to be slipping out his control. Tuesday, Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia withdrew his resignation (handed in over the weekend) at a crisis cabinet meeting. But Reuters reported that Mr. Qureia had agreed only to run a caretaker government, signaling he would not remain for long.

While a new crop of young turks like Zubeidi still consider Arafat their leader, they act independently. Their key motivation is to ratchet up their fight against Israel - Zubeidi takes responsibility for the bombing in Tel Aviv last week that killed one teenage woman and injured more than 30 - but they also express disappointment with the Palestinian Authority.

Here in Jenin, Zubeidi says, the PA as a government is nonexistent. "I'm in charge," says Zubeidi. "The police? They just disturb the traffic. If there's a problem, people come to me. If I catch a thief, I make him return what he steals - and sometimes we get him to join the brigades, so he can help us catch the other thieves. A while ago, someone shot at me, so I broke his hands."

As Zubeidi describes his version of crime and punishment in Jenin, several of his young fighters thumb through fat stacks of Israeli shekels, counting up whether they have enough to buy a new M-16 on the black market. From whom? "Israelis," snap two of the men as they see whether they've reached the necessary price - about $600.

Zubeidi says the Al Aqsa Brigades have no role in the chaos shaking Gaza. But others are not so sure. Hani Masri, a political analyst in Ramallah, says that the unrest there is part of power struggle between Arafat and his former security chief in Gaza, Mohammed Dahlan.

"When we look at the Al Aqsa Brigades, we have to ask which Al Aqsa we're talking about. We have al Aqsa Brigades in Gaza which stand with Dahlan, and some which stand with Arafat," says Mr. Masri. "What is happening in Gaza is coming as a consequence of the [expected] Israeli withdrawal from Gaza which by nature gives Dahlan the upper hand." Arafat has not been able to go to Gaza for more than two years.

Dahlan, a man in his early 40s with a penchant for stylish business suits, presents a virile image next to Arafat's embattled and exhausted one. The differences between the two men overlap with a general sense of public frustration with corruption and mismanagement, and a confusion over where to lay blame.

"This is a rebellion inside Fatah," says Hafez Barghouthi, the editor of the Al Hayat al Jadida newspaper. "There is a conflict between the old generation and the young generation in Fatah. There is a young generation who wants new faces, new blood, and to remove the people who are corrupt."

Ahmed Ghneim, a member of the Fatah Revolutionary Council, argues that it's an oversimplification to cast the current problems as a generational conflict. A reformer in Arafat's political faction, he is deeply concerned about the unprecedented path the intra-Palestinian insurgency is heading down.

"We have to fight against corruption, but anarchy is more dangerous than the corruption itself," says Mr. Ghneim. "We think the call for reform should be heard inside the movement, in a legal way, and not draw the people toward civil war. People who are holding guns in the streets, taking hostages, will never bring reform. What kind of reform is that?"

"When we talk about reform, 80 percent of this feeling is from people who are committed to the Palestinian struggle against the occupation," he says.

"But 20 percent of it is people working only for their own interests."

Zubeidi, for his part, says he would agree to lay down his weapons if Arafat were to strike a peace deal with Israel. But he doesn't see that happening soon. And he doesn't see anything - including the wall meant to keep him from reaching Israel - standing in his way.

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