There is little doubt that Palestinians now face huge challenges after the passing of President Yasser Arafat who held important and sensitive positions in both the resistance and the contemporary Palestinian political system. Most importantly, he has been a revolutionary icon and symbol of the Palestinian national struggle for the past 40 years.
Arafat did not name any successor nor did he appoint a deputy. After his death, his positions have been distributed according to the charters of each institution he led: the Fateh Central Committee elected Farouq Qaddoumi as head of the movement while the PLO’s executive committee elected its treasurer, Mahmoud Abbas, as its new head. Ahmad Qrei’ remained as prime minister and was also given authority over the National Security Council, of which Arafat was head. Meanwhile, Speaker of Parliament, Rawhi Fatouh was granted the responsibility of interim president of the Palestinian Authority for a period of 60 days in accordance with the PA’s Basic Law, and just hours after assuming his post Fatouh announced that presidential elections would be held on January 9.
All of these changes happened in the course of two days and were considered an impressively smooth and calm transition of authority to many. But now, after the official ceremonies and protocols have ended, the question remains, has the political and leadership vacuum left by the president been filled?
Many believe that no leader can ever take the place of Abu Ammar or cross the red lines that he drew: East Jerusalem, the refugee issue, holding armed militias accountable or halting armed resistance under American or Israeli conditions.
Palestinians are in agreement, however, that the passing of their legendary leader will leave behind major changes on the political scene and also influence the work of institutions. And even if the Palestinians - whether those in the Authority, official or national institutions or political parties and factions, were able to smoothly get past the first phase, the fact still remains that they all have many difficult and unpredictable challenges ahead.
In a November 21 Al Quds column, Khader Abu Abara set the context for the new leadership. Internally, he wrote, “there is the spark for confrontation among the centers of power, especially in Fateh, in an attempt to take control over decision making and political influence.”
Externally, Abu Abara pointed to the election of a second term for the “hawks” in America, and he reminded his readers that this is a government that exports wars and relies on preventative strikes in the context of its war on terror. Here, international legitimacy is absent and Security Council resolutions are disregarded.
The third challenge now faced by the Palestinian national movement, he continued, is the pressure from Arab countries, which have found an opportunity in Arafat’s death to distance themselves from the crisis created by the Intifada and avoid confronting the US position towards the conflict. The Arab regimes have come under increased popular pressure to take more radical positions in confronting the Israeli aggression and American bias, he wrote.
Of these, the first is the most pressing for ordinary people. Some fear conflict erupting between different power centers and various interest groups, which have multiplied over the past 10 years since the inception of the PA. Cabdriver Abu Mutaz Matar, 55, says he expects liquidations to take place, especially between the various wings in Fateh - those who benefited from the presence of President Arafat and those, too caught up in the resistance, who did not.
In an unprecedented letter to the leadership, the Aqsa Martyrs Brigades specified its priorities for the post-Arafat phase. These revolved around 10 demands, all of which are related to fighting corruption and setting straight the internal and organizational situation of Fateh and the PA. The Brigades also called for the disclosure and publication of the reasons for Arafat’s death.
Abul Amin, an activist in the Aqsa Brigades, which has changed its name to the Martyr Yasser Arafat Brigades, says, “The martyr and leader [Arafat] always used to postpone holding corrupt people accountable, even if he would always call them scum. He said they would pass with the passing of the phase, but here they are, after his death, manipulating and toying with our people and their potentials.”
The letter, which was published on November 16 after extensive discussions within the Brigades that included its cadres in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, actually named 10 people who still hold important positions in official social and financial institutions and in the late president’s office. They called for serious investigations into these and other unnamed officials in civil society institutions. They also called for a complete review of all the higher echelons in the Authority and PLO departments and an evaluation of their professional performance. This, said the statement, was because it was not reasonable to keep “illiterate, unqualified and ignorant people in high ranking positions in embassies, public administration and ministries.”
At the political level, the Brigades called for the new leadership to declare a clear position on certain political initiatives such as the Geneva Initiative in which Yasser Abed Rabbo, PLO executive committee member is a partner along with Israeli leftist Yossi Beilin, or the People’s Voice, where Dr. Sari Nusseibeh partners Ami Ayalon, former Israeli security chief.
The most critical part of the letter, however, is the demand that the leadership in one month should reap tangible and quick results or else the Brigades would “with their guns, put a stop to all cases of corruption and we will take the law into our own hands. We will carry out public revolutionary trials and we will set up gallows in public squares for all to see.”
Observers say that the letter, which addressed Abbas, Qrei’, Qaddoumi, Fatouh and Zanoun (head of the Palestine National Council in exile) as historical leaders, will add new burdens on an already exhausted leadership to organize Fateh and rein in the lack of security, guarantee order and the rule of law.
They also say the priorities set in the letter entails a summarized political and organizational program that those addressed cannot possibly tackle quickly even if they wanted to, especially given the short time constraint given to carry it out.
Time plays a decisive role for the new leadership, which will remain temporary until elections are conducted. The letter came in tandem with the new leadership’s efforts to prepare the scene for their candidate, Abu Mazen, for presidential elections, and some say this indicates that the Brigades would most likely prefer another candidate from the younger Fateh generation.
Nasser Jumaa’, Israel’s number one wanted man in the Nablus area and one of the Aqsa Brigades’ local leaders told the Palestine Report that, “if we could have a say in this, we would prefer Marwan Barghouti. He is one of the leaders who has been involved in the Intifada leadership and the resistance.”
But, he added, “we prefer that the democratic process and ballot boxes take their course.”
Qaddoura Fares, one of Fateh’s most prominent members of the so-called new guard said in an interview with Al Ayyam on November 16, that “if the choice of a Fateh candidate is limited to the Central Committee and the Revolutionary Council, then we will not accept the results. We will put forth our own candidate, Marwan Barghouti. We, the younger generation, are not represented in the Central Committee or the Revolutionary Council, therefore, we will not be part of the decision.”
Fares proposes that for the sake of Fateh’s unity, the movement’s candidate should be chosen by way of the regional conferences, in which there are between 60,000-70,000 members.
Zuhair Dubei, 55, an imam and activist in the field of human rights and civil liberties, says that following Arafat’s death, Palestinians need to exercise wisdom and unified action to end what he calls the “tribal rule” that has been running society since 1917. “Tribes do not have the ability to confront the Zionist project, which is based on an institutional approach.”
Dubei continues: “We are victims of the occupation in the first, second and third places but we are also victims of mismanagement and poor leadership in the fourth, fifth and sixth places. However, we are able to turn this sad and colossal event [Arafat’s death] around into a positive and promising event. We have trust in our generations and in our great minds. We are not a sterile people, our mothers are not barren. Our people are able to bear leaders of the same caliber as Yasser Arafat.”
Abdel Sattar Qassem, professor of political science at Al Najah University denies that Arafat was ever a charismatic leader. He says charisma entails leaving achievements behind after you are gone. “Arafat did not leave any achievements,” he says. “After he died, there was only a huge political vacuum and a group of centers of power with militias, each flexing its muscles in order to win a place in the leadership. This method is undemocratic and cannot be accepted by the people.”
Qassem has always been a persistent critic of the Palestinian Authority and Arafat’s method of governance. In 1995, he was injured by four bullets, “because of my criticism of the PA,” he says.
He was arrested several times by both the Palestinians and the Israelis and Israel has banned him from traveling for the past 20 years.
Qassem says it is of the utmost importance for the post-Arafat political system that the monopolization of the PA is dismantled. “The PA should not be a monopoly for anyone,” he says. “The factions should not monopolize the PA or political activity [in general]. The major factions are condescending - the people are much larger than any faction. So, the way to break this monopolization is through the people - through conducting elections.”
This article was originally published on November 24, 2004, by Palestine Report, found at www.palestinereport.org. Also in this week’s edition: PR interviews likely presidential candidate Mustapha Barghouti and reports from Jerusalem on Palestinian skepticism regarding their participation in the upcoming elections.