As Palestinians mourn the death of one of its most famous resistance leaders, high level political discussions this week were deemed “positive and constructive” with regard to maintaining stability and Palestinian unity.
With the death on Thursday of Yasir Arafat, the man who more or less controlled the panorama of Palestinian national struggle against Zionism for the past forty years, the Palestinian Authority (PA) and resistance organisations are making strenuous efforts to appear united in the face of mounting uncertainty over the post-Arafat era.
Earlier this week, PA Prime Minister Ahmad Quraya held what was described as “positive and constructive talks” with the leaders of 13 Palestinian factions and organisations, including the powerful opposition resistance group, Hamas.
Quraya emphasised the need to manage differences through dialogue and avoid contention and violence. “Violence is not the solution. Taking up arms is not the solution. Any domestic problem must be solved by national dialogue. This is the only way,” he said.
According to sources in Gaza, where the meeting took place, there was a general consensus among all the factions over the need to display utmost national responsibility at “this delicate juncture”.
Israel stoking fire
Opposition representative to the talks, Ismail Haniyyah, said Hamas was making every possible effort to cooperate with the PA to overcome the “present crisis”. He dismissed reports originating in Israel about the prospective of inter or intra-factional violence as “wishful thinking”.
“They [Israelis] have been trying to stoke the fire in another attempt to ignite a civil war among Palestinians but we have always proved that we are a strong people”
Hamas said it was not clear why Quraya warned against “taking up arms” since all Palestinian factions were opposed to the prospect. “We don’t know why he mentioned this, nobody wants to take up arms,” said Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri.
Observers say it is likely Quraya was worried more about an intra-Fatah power struggle and less about a possible showdown between Fatah and Hamas. One PA official told Aljazeera.net that the often contentious security agencies, particularly in the Gaza Strip, constituted the “weak link” at the moment.
A few months ago, violence erupted after Arafat appointed his widely despised nephew Musa Arafat as security chief in Gaza. The ensuing demonstration eventually forced the Palestinian leader to revoke the appointment, which only temporarily “froze” the problem.
A Hamas representative from Hebron noted that this was not to say that Hamas and other opposition groups were willing to give the post-Arafat Palestinian leadership a “blank cheque”.
“We are willing to give them a grace period for a few months to prevent the occurrence of lawlessness and chaos… But after that they will have to pay attention to the masses,” said the veteran Hamas leader.
Asked what he exactly meant, he explained that Arafat’s autocratic style, which was tolerated for psychological and objective reasons, would not be accepted or tolerated from the new Palestinian leadership. “They will have to be answerable to the people, and this could only be put into effect through free, fair and genuine elections.”
Indeed, while careful to display national responsibility, Hamas is none the less worried that the “new leadership” might slip back to the Oslo path and find itself, once again, “in American and Israeli laps”.
This, argue the resistance group’s leaders, would be translated, almost automatically, to a showdown with Hamas, since “fighting terror” - which means cracking down on the opposition - would be the essential condition for any conceivable revival of an Oslo-style peace process, including the American-backed road map for peace between Israel and the Palestinians.
Hamas does, however, dread this prospect and is unlikely to allow the new leadership to evolve into another “Oslo gang” as the erstwhile Oslo-era leadership was often dubbed by the opposition.
Notwithstanding, observers see the resistance group as likely to be in an advantageous position vis-a-vis the Palestinian leadership.
With Arafat no longer around and with his galvanising effect gone, the evolving Palestinian leadership would be less able and probably less inclined to confront Hamas head-on since such a measure might be interpreted as being in cahoots with the Israelis against Palestinian national interests.
There is no doubt that even the appearance of collaborating with the Israelis - or even the Americans - against Hamas is the last thing the new leadership would want. Observers believe this would be a certificate of bad conduct at best and political suicide at worst as well as the easiest way to lose a fragile and conditional legitimacy hinging on their commitment to the national cause.
The new Palestinian leadership has to manoeuvre very carefully and very wisely between the Palestinian mainstream - where Hamas’ presence is conspicuous - and an international community making huge demands.
Elections seem to be the solution which all Palestinian factions say they accept. The US has already indicated it will support the organisation of elections to choose a successor to Arafat. However, it is highly doubtful that occupier Israel will want to empower Palestinians by allowing them to choose a leader who very likely would be inimical to Israeli designs for perpetual occupation and territorial increase.
The elections would not only sort out things between the PA and the Islamist opposition camp but also enable the people to punish, through the ballot box, those elements deemed as corrupt, especially within Fatah.
Those corrupt officials could not have survived and thrived that long without Arafat, for whom they always acted as sycophantic and obedient cronies and hangers-on in return for tolerating their indulgences.
Observers believe what worked under Arafat is unlikely to work under Abu Mazin, Ahmad Quraya or any other post-Arafat leader, elected or otherwise. Besides the Israeli occupation, this is undoubtedly going to be the ultimate challenge, not only for the new leader or leaders, but for the Palestinian masses as well.
Khalid Amayreh is a journalist based in the occupied West Bank. This article was originally published by aljazeera.net.