Barely two days after Yasser Arafat was buried, under the chaotic circumstances in his Ramallah Mukhata fortress, some forty gunmen, belonging to his loyal Al Aqsa Martyrs’ brigades ( renamed after his death to Arafat’s Martyr’s brigades), rushed into a mourning tent in Gaza City, November 15, and opened fire on the congregation. Two men were killed and four badly wounded. Among the congregation was Mahmoud Abbas ( Abu Mazen), the man Fatah had just nominated to run for Palestinian president, they could easily have killed him and gunned down all the mourners packed in the tent. As it turned out he was unhurt.
Colonel Mohammed Dahlan had sought to place the Gaza-based Presidential guard, Force 17, in charge of overall security for the mourners’ tent and the Palestinian dignitaries gathering there that evening. He was snubbed by the chiefs of all the local Gaza security, intelligence and terrorist groups, including Hamas, Jihad Islami and the Popular Resistance Committees, the umbrella for Gaza’s al Aqsa Brigades. Each chief insisted on his personal bodyguards accompanying him into the tent, with no coordination among them. Moussa Arafat, for instance, is never seen without his 60-70 bodyguards; Gaza Strip general intelligence chief Mohammed Hindi employs between 40 and 50.
Notwithstanding these armies of protectors, a hostile band of gunmen managed to break into the tent, keep up a 10-minute barrage of automatic fire and make a clean getaway. Palestinian sources agree that this brazen demonstration of strength and clean escape could not have been carried off without the connivance of most of the faction chiefs present – which bodes ill for Abu Mazen’s chances of gaining Gaza Strip support for his bid for the presidency.
Tension rose already during Arafat’s funeral in Ramallah. Moussa Arafat, one of the dead leaders’s closest relatives present, was visibly ignored by the Ramallah leadership. None of dignitaries approached him with condolences. Things became even more hectic next day, when Moussa Arafat was left out at the graveside of his uncle. This serious affront did not go unnoticed in Gaza and revenge was inevitable.
An investigation into the attack revealed that the perpetrators belonged to a group (led by leaders of the Gaza Branch of Fatah, among these, secretary Ahmed Hallas Abu Mazher) arch rival of Dahlan and Moussa Arafat’s ally.
The message from the Gazaeans to the Ramallah was crystal clear: ” No one can replace Arafat and look out, next time we shall shoot to kill, if you ignore us!”
Monday’s high profile provocation was not the first in lawless Gaza.
A similar clash between Dahlan’s men and Hallas’ faction took place on January 1, Fatah’s commemoration day, when hundreds of armed men participated in a show of strength in the Gaza stadium, only weeks after a similar event held by Hamas. When Dahlan’s supporters took over the podium, the brawl ensued, with casualties on both sides.
Since the beginning of this year, these incidents have included mutual killings, the explosion of a booby-trapped car outside the headquarters of Moussa Arafat, an attack on Hallas by unknown assailants, and a series of kidnappings of Arafat supporters in the Gaza Strip.
Yasser Arafat had lent his complete backing to the camp headed by Hallas and by his cousin, Moussa Arafat, which had the upper hand during his lifetime. It is a camp that has many members from, or associated with, the Arafat family. Other members are from the “Fatah hawks” in Rafah. Now with Arafat’s demise, it has lost considerable power.
Dahlan, on the other hand, controls the preventive security force, several other central groups in Fatah, and some of the other armed groups such as Amin al-Hindi’s general intelligence service. According to sources in Gaza, the two camps are now of about equal strength.
Dahlan also has control of the revenues that come from the crossing points into the Gaza Strip, and undoubtedly can lay his hands on tens of millions of dollars that have been gathered over the years.
The Struggle for Arafat’s Legacy
The Palestinian Authority (PA) has been disintegrating for months and virtually ceased functioning as a central control element. Although, following the recent election of Abu Mazen’s determination has given a glimmer of hope for stabilisation in the territories, the newly elected president will face some highly precarious hurdles, in order to step into the shoes of the deceased Rai’s- Arafat. One of those hurdles will be to establish some law and order in the chaotic gaza strip and especially in its southern sector, Khan Yunis and Rafah, in which even the dominating Rai’s could not break the ruling local family clans. Rafah, with its strategic location and traditional smuggling routes, could become a break or make effort for any central control in the Gaza strip and it is highly doubtful, wether a man like Abu Mazen is up to this task.
Last spring, former US Ambassador to Israel Martin Indyk reported that a state of semi-anarchy and gang rule was engulfing the West Bank and Gaza.
The glue that held the West Bank and Gaza strip together is now gone. The aftershocks of his demise are still pending, before nearly four million Palestinians will come to realize that a new era has started, with hopes and and expectations, but equally dangerous escalation and despair in the offing.
With no single leader or clear chain of command, it is going to be very hard for anyone to change Palestinian policy or take decisive action such as ending the violence or engaging in serious negotiations. A post-Arafat period anarchy, in which different groups, factions, local warlords, and security agencies operate on their own and ignore instructions from the top could be dangerous for all concerned. The Palestinian movement will split along a number of possible lines: between Palestinians inside ( local leadership, West Bank and Gaza ) and outside leaders in exile: like Khaled Mishal of Hamas in Damascus and Farouk Qadoumi of PLO in Tunis.
Furthermore, rivalries between factions in the West Bank and Gaza themselves will create local power bases in different towns, seeking self rule for personal interests.
Into such chaotic circumstances dangerous elements like Hezbollah, backed by Iran, or even Al Qaeda, will try to expand their influence, which could, if not curbed in time, reach strategic proportions in the region .
One outcome of this disintegration could be the breakup of the Palestinian self rule areas into two geographically distinct entities. This would not be all that surprising. Palestinian society, after all, has always been strongly characterized by tribalism, as well as strong regional differences that set apart hill dwellers from plainsmen, nomads from settled population, urbanites from villagers, and Easterners from Westerners. While the West Bank is only about thirty miles from Gaza, there is more separating the two territories than an expanse of the Israeli Negev Desert.
In the West Bank, only 27 percent of the population are refugees, as opposed to the 64 percent that inhabit the Gaza Strip. Residents of the two areas have for decades, developed a quiet, and sometimes not so quiet, animosity toward each other.
For one, the different regional patriarchal clans have always dominated local politics in the two territories. In the West Bank, the Nashishibi, Huseini, Ja’abari and Masri families are among the dominant political elite. By nature, these clans are regional, and are often at odds, since they compete for economic, political and social stature.
Khalil Shiqaqi, a prominent Palestinian sociologist, after conducting hundreds of interviews, notes the presence of “a psychological barrier between the inhabitants of the two territories and . . . mutual suspicion” that cannot be “disregarded or ignored.”
Shiqaqi’s study, entitled The West Bank and Gaza Strip: Future Political and Administrative Relations, shows the existence of a prevalent West Bank belief that the Gaza Strip is “nothing but a big refugee camp.” Further, West Bankers see the Gaza Strip as a backward society with “increased crime, inclined to roughness, extremism, grimness, fanaticism and instability.”
Gaza’s stronger local families include the Shawwa, Shafei and Middein families. But they remain a clear minority but Gazans, for their part, expressed their misgivings over the patronizing and discriminating West Bankers, who show them little respect.
According to an Israeli internal security (Shin-Bet) report before the outbreak of the Intifada, those sentiments have generally gone unchanged. The report noted “mounting hostility and a growing rift between the West Bank and Gaza Strip,” to the point that “senior officials in the West Bank are against opening the ‘safe passage’ route [between the West Bank and Gaza Strip according to the Oslo accord], as the result could be to flood Judea and Samaria with Gazans!
The notion of Palestinian regionalism is further reinforced by the varied Arabic dialects spoken throughout the territories. West Bank dialects are similar to the Jordanian dialect, while influences of Egyptian dialect are heard throughout Gaza.
Palestinian Territories Might Become Two Separate States
Geopolitics have long exacerbated Palestinian tribalism and limited ties between the West Bank and Gaza. After the first Arab-Israeli war in 1948, Egypt occupied Gaza and Jordan occupied the West Bank. A pro-Egypt, pan-Arabist movement developed in Gaza, while many Palestinians in the West Bank developed an allegiance to the Hashemite Kingdom.
The West Bank was merged legally and administratively into the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan in 1950. Notwithstanding Israeli occupation of the territory since 1967, Jordan maintained its links with the West Bank until August 1988 when King Hussein declared the “dismantling of legal and administrative links” with the West Bank..Transjordanians tended to fear that the numerically preponderant Palestinians could emerge as a dominant force in Jordan itself ( an estimated over fifty percent of Jordan’s population is of Palestinian origin!).
In the first months after the 1967 war, it was, strangely enough, the leadership of Nablus who were the first considered what they could do in order to begin negotiations between Israel and King Hussein of Jordan. They offered to act as mediators. They declared their wish to be returned to Jordan, even though they had suffered heavily under Jordanian rule. As is widely known, Jordan dealt very harshly with them because of their frequent uprisings against King Hussein in the West Bank in the 1950s and early 1960s. Those uprisings had endangered Hussein’s regime, his rule and his crown, and the Jordanians subdued them with brutal force.
The Nablus leaders’ offer to mediate was not accepted.
Recent insider reports have indicated that behind the scene, young King Abdullah II of Jordan has taken new interest in the West Bank and a possible revival of the shelved “Jordan Option” of the late eighties. According to Ehud Ya’ari, a leading Middle East expert, in closed forums, central figures from the Palestinian leadership have lately started talking about the need for Jordan to resume an active, substantive role in the West Bank. Sixteen years after the late King Hussein was forced to declare his kingdom’s disengagement from its former possessions across the river amid the wrath of the first Intifada, there are whispers about the need to find a new formula establishing some kind of linkage between efforts to create an independent Palestinian state and the neighbour to the east.
However, even if the “Jordanian Option” should materialise, its efforts to re-establish some stability in the prevailing West Bank anarchy seems highly dubious.
Factually, the Palestine National Authority (PNA) can exercise control only over the ‘greater Ramallah’ region and even there it is not complete, as the dramatic scenes of Rafat’s funeral demonstrated.
A major problem exists through the geographical non- linkage between northern Samaria ( Nablus-Jenin) and southern Judea ( Bethlehem and Hebron) will continue to pose critical interconnection problems for any central authority control, as long as the Jerusalem issue remains unresolved, which is blocking direct traffic routes between the two PNA enclaves.
Chaotic Situation in The West Bank Towns
Local warlords are the de-facto rulers of all major West Bank cities.
Three of those stand out in particular.
Jenin, in the north is virtually under control of the head of the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades Zacharia Zubeidi. In an interview published Mid November, Zubeidi told the Financial Times that he would accept Abbas as the Fatah candidate if he were freely elected, but said that his loyalty would only last for as long as he kept to the enduring Palestinian stance in negotiations.
The 28-year-old Zacharia Zubeidi is one of the highest-profile armed militants in the West Bank. He rose to local prominence in the battle that came after Israeli tanks rolled into the Jenin refugee camp in April 2002, and which left 52 Palestinians – including one of his five brothers – and 23 Israeli soldiers dead.
Young Zubeidi became famous, when in July 2003 he kidnapped the then governor of Jenin Heydar Irsheid, accusing him of corruption, torching the municipal offices and parading in the streets clutching Arafat’s portrait.
Perhaps the most embarrassing incident which occured in Jenin happened on May 14, 2002 when Arafat made his first trip by helicopter to visit the ruins of Jenin refugee camp after the battle. While thousands of Palestinians were waiting below, countless TV crews awaiting his arrival, Arafat sudenly cancelled his landing , following strict warnings by his security men, that angered crowds in the camp could assault him. Ominously, a stage from which Mr Arafat was to address the crowd in Jenin refugee camp was mysteriously burnt shortly before he began his journey. What was planned as a triumphant return ended in dreadful calamity for which the people of Jenin never forgave their cherished leader.
Hebron is large terrorist center ruled by a prominent family clan.
In October 2003, more than 100 members of the Qawasma family and others were arrested in an attempt to put a stop to the activities of the cell, which have resulted in the deaths of over 80 Israelis. But the terror cell that dispatched Ahmed Qawasma and Nisim Jabri on the double suicide attack in Be’er Sheva, last September, was orchestrated by Imad Qawasma, head of the military wing of Hamas, Iz a-Din al-Qassam, in Hebron. Shortly afterwards, Imad Tsalah A-Fatah Qawasma, 31, surrendered after soldiers surrounded his home.
Until April 2002 Colonel ( later Brigadier General) Jibril Rajoub virtually exercised control over Hebron, but since Israel’s destruction of his headquarters, his authority has waned deteriorating into total lawlessness in the clan-ruled city.
How independent Hebronites felt even during Arafat’s rule can demonstrate an incident which happened last July.
As pro-reform Palestinian legislator Nabil Amer was nursing the wounds inflicted by Yasser Arafat’s gunmen, a phone call came through to his room at the Amman university hospital from none other than Arafat. The Palestinian leader inquired about his health and offered to pay his hospital expenses.
Amer did not bother to reply.
Sitting beside his bed was a fellow Hebronite, Rafiq Natshe, once Palestinian legislative council speaker, for many years PLO ambassador in Saudi Arabia and a highly respected figure in the Palestinian community. Known also as Abu Shakar, he is the head of the leading Natshe family of Hebron. Since Amer belongs to the largest Mt Hebron clan, which is centered on the large village of Dura, Natshe’s frequent hospital visits are ominously charged: the two great clans of the southern West Bank have decided to make common cause against Arafat. These people will not readily submit to a centralised Post Arafat rule from Ramallah!
An even worse situation of anarchy prevails in Nablus, the lagest West Bank town.
Nablus, the largest city in the northern West Bank, represents an extreme illustration of the anarchy which has taken hold in the Palestinian territories – a situation which, according to analysts, could well descend into civil war as veteran Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat finally departs the scene.
Struggles between different factions of Arafat’s Fatah movement are thought to be behind the assassination last April of the Palestinian journalist Khalil al-Ziban, who also served as an advisor to Arafat, as well as a raft of other violent crimes in the territories.
The internecine warfare claimed its most high-profile casualty early May when the long-standing and respected mayor of the city, Ghassan al-Shaka, announced his resignation to President Arafat.
His intention was to “ring the alarm bell” urging the Palestinian Authority to implement draconian measures to put an end to the reign of terror of the armed groups.
While Shaka was reluctant to point the finger, many Palestinians lay the blame for the chaos in Nablus at the door of the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, an armed offshoot of Fatah which appears commanded by Abu Mahmud, an outspoken critic of Shaka.
According to Hazem Zhokan, who heads the ruling Fatah party’s branch in the Nablus refugee camp of Balata, the growing crime rate is a direct consequence of a bitter power struggle between former mayor, governor Mahmud al-Alul and the leaders of the various security services. PNA officials, who attempted to restore some degree of law and order in Nablus were chased out by local armed gangs at gunpoint.
The Gaza Connection: International Transitional Protectorate?
In view of the dangerous developments in the Post-Arafat era and a continued impasse in Israeli politics towards a common solution, analysts consider future international intervention imperative in order to prevent a dangerous Iranian-backed power base, especially in Gaza, once Ariel Sharon’s disengagement initiative is realised in 2005.
Although Israel has vehemently opposed such a move, an international transitional protectorate vehicle for the West Bank and Gaza strip, formally replacing Israel’s occupation authority ( and the disintegrating PNA) cannot be ruled out if the deadlock continues with its vicious circle of violence.
Within such a ” protectorate” Jordan and Egypt would have to play an active part, each in their immediate sphere of influence and the help of Egyptian intelligence chief Omar Suleiman, can become a crucial element in search for a viable solution.
Mohammed Dahlan, former security chief in Gaza, is carefully signaling readiness to consider its disengagement from the West Bank in what is named a Palestinian Transitional Administration (PTA).
Colonel Dahlan, won the largest number of votes in internal Fatah elections, last July, in the northern Gaza Strip which is significant and could undermine a central Palestinian Authority influence in Gaza. His meteoric rise from the son of a poor refugee family in Khan Yunis to one of the wealthiest Palestinians in the Gaza Strip has become legendary. Dahlan has many rivals and Monday’s attack on the mourners tent, signalled that any bid of his for control in the strip would not remain unchallenged.
Working through emmissaries, Dahlan is said to be one of the proponents of an important document recently published called “A Proposal for Governance of the Gaza Strip in the Context of the Announced Israeli Withdrawal.”
This document, also called “the Toledo Plan” is the result of workshops and deliberations held jointly by Israelis and Palestinians with the participation of experts from Canada, Ireland and Spain, under the auspices of the Madrid-based Toledo International Center for Peace. First published by the Haaretz on Friday November 19 it has already caused significant attention in Israel and Gaza.
The Israeli team included former senior personnel from the defense establishment and the Prime Minister’s Office – Major General (res.) Ze’ev Livneh, who was the military aide to Benjamin Netanyahu when he was prime minister; Pini Meidan from the Mossad espionage agency and from the bureau of former prime minister Ehud Barak; Peri Golan from the Shin Bet security service; Motti Krispal from Ehud Barak’s peace directorate; and Uri Ne’eman from the Mossad. Of the public figures, the best known is Shlomo Ben-Ami, who served as foreign minister in the Barak government; among the representatives of his party who took part in the discussions were MKs Matan Vilnai and Ophir Pines-Paz ( Labour), both have joined Ariel Shraon’s new coalition in January 2005.
Heading the other side’s team was Dr. Khaled al-Yazji, former chief of protocol in the Palestinian Authority, and with him three others identified themselves by name, with all the risks this entails: Basil Jibril, Amjad Atallah and Abdullah Sati. About three months ago, Al-Yazji was one of the few who dared to call on Yasser Arafat to resign, at long last, and to let the Palestinians get on with the peace process. His call reflected the frame of mind of Dahlan during one of the peaks of his disputes with Arafat.
The central aim of the Toledo plan is “to facilitate the development of a reliable Palestinian structure of governance that would create the conditions for a peaceful and successful execution of the withdrawal plan.” That structure is meant to take the form of a temporary Palestinian Authority for Gaza, known as the Palestinian Transitional Administration (PTA). Under the Toledo Plan, a reliable governing body in Gaza should be endorsed by a special United Nations Security Council resolution; in the same resolution the Security Council should also reiterate its recognition of the two-sovereign state principle. (For details see: www.toledopeace.org)
Wether anyone will be strong enough to control the crucial Rafah region, however remains highly questionable. The dominant family clans and their lucrative smuggling activities will hardly give in to any authority without a fight.
Experienced Mid-East analysts estimate that there is little chance that liberal democracy will succeed in the Palestinian Authority. Not now. Not for a long time.
In the best-case scenario, temporary Palestinian leadership and future leadership will be mired in powerlessness. Before anything positive can happen the winners in this election will have to break the logjam of the Arafat legacy, a legacy that demanded that the Palestinian people fight for everything and compromise on nothing. A legacy that most hold dear.
Finally, there is the problem of Hamas, whose power has grown significantly since 2000. Hamas has signaled its readiness to join the new Palestinian leadership on the basis of equality, but that would mean veto power over major political decisions, particularly those related to the conflict with Israel. At the same time, Hamas spokesmen have hinted that while the movement accepted Arafat’s personal status as leader, it might challenge the current leadership in the coming election. Given Fatah’s ongoing disintegration, Hamas could emerge as the most powerful organization, at least in the Gaza Strip, even though its current leaders lack the stature and charisma of former leaders Ahmad Yasin and Abd al-Aziz al-Rantisi, killed by Israel in March 2004. Thus, while Arafat only sought to co-opt Hamas, the new leaders may be forced to accept it as a partner in government, thereby ending Fatah’s monopoly of power in Palestinian politics.
Mahmoud Abbas and Ahmed Qurei lack any power base among the grassroots activists or “Tanzim” (organization) leaders of the “interim generation” who led the 1987-1993 intifada and have served as the backbone of Fatah ever since. Under Arafat, these Tanzim activists were relegated to secondary positions in the PA institutions; the front ranks were reserved for the “Tunisians.”
The most prominent of these is Marwan Barghouti, former Secretary-General of Fatah in the West Bank, who is now serving five life terms in an Israeli prison for the murder of Israeli civilians. Unlike the Tunis-based leaders, he enjoys widespread popularity for his incorruptibility and defiance of Israel.
Indications of the potential challenge of the Tanzim leaders may be found in the news spread by his supporters that Barghouti would run in the elections for PA chairman, scheduled for January 2005.
But no matter who takes the reigns, the chance of a West Bank-Gaza Strip split is very real. Despite a recent flood of books and articles attesting to long-standing patriotism, the Palestinian Arab community has a longer tradition of factionalism and disunity. Indeed, it was tribalism and clan rivalries that rendered the Palestinian nationalist movement ineffectual against the Zionist movement during the first half of the 20th century.
Incidentally, this notion of separation is not without precedent. In 1948, after the withdrawal of the British, Bangladesh and Pakistan became two separate, culturally distinct territories under a single rule. For more than two decades, Bangladeshis grumbled about their role as junior partner in this unlikely marriage.
Then, in 1971, with a deepened sense of nationalism that could no longer be denied, Bangladesh seceded from Pakistan after 23 years.
However in the Middle East, clocks go differently and by the end of the day decisions will inevitably be made, neither in Jerusalem, nor Ramallah, but as usual since 2001, in Washington.