Palestinian internal crisis deepens but is not new

Palestinian president Yasser Arafat making “victory-sign” as he is confined to his headquarters in Ramallah (Ronald de Hommel)

Today, masked men set fire and destroyed a Palestinian police station. They stormed the place in Zwaida, smashed furniture and then set fire to the building. The fire damaged the town’s council building nearby. No group has claimed responsibility yet. In Khan Yunis, affiliates of the Aqsa Brigades took over the building of the local government. They demanded that Arafat fire his cousin Musa.

A string of protests at the Palestinian Authority’s corruption, including kidnappings of security officials, have forced the Palestinian president to cut the sprawling Palestinian security services to three groups. There is a much deeper confidence crisis between the Palestinian public and their national leadership.

For most Palestinians the demands of reform are not only connected to the PA’s financial corruption and nepotism. It also reflects the gap between younger generations and the “Oslo gang” — those from the inside and “those from Tunis”. It also reflects anger at political corruption, the mistake made with the Oslo agreements. The Palestinian Authority has manouvered itself in an impossible position in which, on the one hand, it had to provide services to its own population and security to Israel. However, the Palestinian Authority has been unable to protect its own population from Israeli military violence and the daily effects of the ongoing military occupation of Palestinian territory.

Though subject to Israel’s decisions on all matters of any significance, the Palestinian Authority were granted one domain as their own: they have exclusive responsibility for anything done or not done, meaning that they agreed to take upon itself the debilitating costs of Israel’s occupation and to assume a continuing responsibility for Israel’s security.

The immediate Israeli goal behind the establishment of the Palestinian Authority was to unburden itself of the role of direct occupation. It therefore needed a loyal Palestinian leadership with enough authority to be accepted by the Palestinian population.

The Oslo process necessarily developed the Palestinian political system toward what looks like a one-party system generating a neopatrimonial bureaucratic regime under the supreme authority of one leader. The fact that Yasser Arafat led the national struggle for four decades has given him a popularity no other existing Palestinian leader enjoys. This system did not rely or allow the functioning of national institutions, and limits the role of public administration to the implementation of the ruler’s directives. Fatah’s party structure was merged into the adminstrative structure of the Palestinian Authority and its security and police apparatus. It created a new group, that of “VIPs” who searched for alignments with the various security apparatuses.

In December 1999, twenty prominent Palestinians, including activists, academics and members of the Palestinian Legislative Council put their names to a petition which accused Arafat of “opening the doors for opportunists to spread corruption throughout the Palestinian community.” The petition denounced the “corruption, deceit and despotism” that has followed upon the Oslo Accords between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organisation, which established the PA. “The people are divided into two groups: that of the select who rule and steal, and that of the majority which complains and searches for someone to save it,” the petition stated.

Arafat ordered Palestinian security forces to arrest eight of the signatories and impose house arrests on three others. At his prodding, the PLC held a special session and censured those who signed the petition. Arafat threatened to lift the immunity of PLC members so that the nine legislators who endorsed the document could also be arrested.

On his way back from the four-hour PLC session, one of the signatories, Mu’awiyya Al Masri, a legislator and physician, was attacked by masked gunmen and shot in the leg. The critics included members of Arafat’s own party, Fatah. Others included Bassam Shaka’a, a former mayor of Nablus and Ahmed Qatamesh, a prominent author and intellectual, and the longest Palestinian administrative detainee in Israeli prisons serving over 66 months without trial.

According to the 1999 Amnesty International Report, in 1998 in areas controlled by the PA, more than 450 people were arrested for political reasons, including prisoners of conscience. More than 500 remained in detention without charge or trial from previous years. People were serving prison terms after grossly unfair trials. Torture and ill treatment were widespread. Three died in custody under conditions where torture and ill treatment must have contributed to their deaths. Illegal killings continue. The report said that investigations into human rights abuses had not been published by the PA.

Palestinians link financial corruption, mismanagement, political blunders and nepotism with acts that the Palestinian Authority was forced to do under the Oslo agreements — that is clampdown on critics of the agreements. For that purpose, the Palestinian Authority arrested and detained, rounded up opposition members and held them without trials. Reports of torture and deaths under detention were widespread in those days.

Books by Professor Edward Said, the well-known Palestinian scholar and professor of literature at Columbia University in New York City, were banned by Arafat, adding to the list of attacks by the PA on basic democratic rights. Two of the books, written in Arabic, included articles sharply critical of the 1993 Oslo Agreement. Said, who until Oslo had been a close ally of Arafat and a member of the Palestinian parliament-in-exile, declared that the agreement was an “instrument of Palestinian surrender” and that Arafat had agreed to become “Israel’s enforcer”. Until he died, Said frequently accused Arafat of running an incompetent, brutal and corrupt regime.

Popular protests thus far have largely focused on PA ministers and the police, despite the fact nothing the PA says or does goes ahead without Arafat’s say-so. Now the reluctance to criticise Arafat, out of deference to his historic role in the national liberation struggle, has been brushed aside. In 1999 and 2000 prominent Palestinians have come out and openly criticised Arafat, as the social and economic conditions faced by the majority of the people declined.

Under the Oslo agreements, the PA security services were obliged to “act systematically against all expressions of [Palestinian] violence and terror” and “arrest and prosecute [Palestinian] individuals suspected of perpetrating acts of violence and terror”.

A strong PA police and intelligence force was one of Israel’s preconditions for any move towards “self rule.” Creating an internal Palestinian security force to replace the 100,000-strong Israeli army in the occupied Palestinian territories was one of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin’s main motives for backing the Oslo Accords in 1993.

“The Palestinians will be better at it than we were,” he said in September 1993, “because they will allow no appeals to the Supreme Court and will prevent the Israeli Association of Civil Rights from criticising the conditions thereby denying it access to the area. They will rule by their own methods, freeing, and this is most important, the Israeli army soldiers from having to do what they will do.”

Numerous police forces gave Arafat enormous scope for political and financial patronage. But 40,000 police were not required to ensure the economic, social and political development of the 2.6 million people in the new Palestinian “entity”, but rather to keep the lid on things in the absence of such development.

Today, Fatah’s Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades are leading street protests against Arafat’s appointment of Musa Arafat, his cousin, as the head of the General Security Service in Gaza, branding him a “symbol of corruption” and demanding he step down. Arafat had shuffled security chiefs on Monday, but did not dismiss his nephew outright. He has also refused to accept the resignation of Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmad Qurei. Like the former Prime Minister, Mahmoud Abbas, Qurei has been perceived as battling Arafat for control.

On Wednesday, President Arafat offered Qurei the ability to appoint new ministers and to become responsible for security issues. At a meeting of the Palestinian Legislative Council, members demanded that Arafat accept Qurei’s resignation. A report compiled by members of the Palestinian Legislative Council called for a new government. The report also stressed the need for political reforms, wide participation and a separation of power. It urged the Palestinian Legislative Council to “rise up to take its responsibilities and exert its prerogatives.”

On Tuesday night PLC member Nabil Amr was shot twice in the leg at his Ramallah home. Amr, who has been perceived as a critic of the PA, was taken to a hospital in Jordan a day later. According to reports, Amr said that those who attacked him were mistaken to believe that the attack would deter him from demanding reforms. Amr served as Information Minister in a former cabinet. Two years ago, gunmen fired several shots at his house after he called for reforms and criticized Arafat’s methods of governing. That attack followed a publication in which he echoed Israeli claims that Arafat missed an opportunity at the Camp David talks in 2000. He is the editor of the PA-linked Al-Hayat al-Jadeeda newspaper. A statement issued by Arafat’s office said the PA chairman had ordered an investigation into the shooting incident.

Related Links

  • BY TOPIC: Yasser Arafat
  • Palestinian Authority should tackle crisis through reform, Annan says, UN News (21 July 2004)
  • What’s wrong with the PA?, Arjan El Fassed (18 July 2004)
  • Journalists threatened over coverage of political infighting, CPJ (23 July 2004)
  • Palestine Journalists Syndicate bans reports on PA crisis, RSF (22 July 2004)
  • Mezan warns about serious consequences of the declaration of emergency, Al-Mezan (18 July 2004)
  • UN Envoy: Palestinian Authority’s paralysis has become abundantly clear, UN/DPI (13 July 2004)
  • Deep-rooted corruption in Palestine, Hasan Abu Nimah & Ali Abunimah (23 June 2004)
  • Cement and Corruption, Arjan El Fassed (11 June 2004)
  • A Palestinian Authority steeped in paralysis and corruption, Hasan Abu Nimah (18 February 2004)