Sunday, July 18, 2004

Palestinians - 1 -- Is liberation nigh?

In the long list of controversial foreign policy positions of the Bush Admin, I have disagreed with almost all, either on substance or the manner of implementation, e.g. Kyoto. There is however one policy I have heartily endorsed: the refusal to do business with Arafat.

Arafat, and the old PLO generation that returned with him from Tunis, have repeatedly demonstrated their complete lack of interest in promoting the well-being of the Palestinian people. Their only interest in the "peace process" is that it provides the structure that enables them to maintain an iron grip on power. As the "legitimate" representatives of the Palestinians, all the funds that come from outside the territories to support the Palestinian population or their conflict with the Israelis flow through the hands of Arafat and his cronies. Without the "peace process" Arafat isn't a legitimate leader -- just the godfather who controls the money and muscle.

The anti-Israeli violence has suited Arafat well, allowing him to divide and conquer, whether through patronage or force, any serious potential opposition. It has been so vital to him, he's been willing to have PMs resign over the matter of reforming the so-called security services. But it looks like the Palestinians, at least in Gaza, may have finally reached a tipping point.

Palestinian gunmen issued a fresh challenge to Yasser Arafat's rule on Monday in a standoff that followed a weekend of growing violence in the Gaza Strip, demanding police leave a compound so they could set it alight.

On Sunday, at least 18 people were wounded when scores of gunmen battled forces loyal to the Palestinian president's new security chief in Gaza, his cousin Moussa Arafat -- a member of a Palestinian old guard widely viewed as corrupt. The level of violence between Palestinians was unprecedented since Arafat's Palestinian Authority took control of most of the Gaza Strip in 1994 under interim peace accords with Israel.

"This corruption is like a cancer," gunmen shouted at a rally at the Nusseirat refugee camp in central Gaza, underlining the depth of feelings in a crisis that prompted Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qurie to resign on Friday.Calls for reform have soared amid a brewing factional power struggle in Gaza in anticipation of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's planned withdrawal of troops and settlers from the occupied territory by the end of 2005.

In another blow to the Palestinian president's prestige, the commander of the Palestinian coastguard, Juma Ghali, tendered his resignation. Security sources said Ghali was protesting against Moussa Arafat's appointment and instability in Gaza. "People are simply fed up," Sufian Abu Zaideh, a Palestinian deputy minister, told Israeli Army Radio.

The conflict is not a simple matter of a revolt by guys in white hats, either from the view of Israelis or Palestinians. This weekend's Jerusalem Post offered an analysis by Khaled Abu Toameh:

Some Palestinians said over the weekend that they do not regard the chaos in the Gaza Strip as a power struggle between "the good guys" and "the bad guys." They pointed out that the Fatah gunmen who are pressing for reforms and democracy are the same men who have been acting as judges, juries, and executioners for many years.

A Palestinian legislator in Ramallah on Saturday warned against attempts by "armed thugs" to take a ride on the anti-corruption campaign. "Many of these gunmen have no right to talk about reforms and transparency," he said. "Nor do some of those who are using them to advance personal interests."

Though it's far too early to predict either who will wind up as new leaders or when, there's cause for a glimmer of optimism if this signals the beginning of the end for the Arafat crowd. It will likely be both long and messy before effective leadership emerges. I'd bet it will take at least two rounds of changes before anything stable appears. Almost certainly a major generation shift will be key -- not to the generation immediately following Arafat but rather the generation that came of age in the territories after the PLO was forced out of Lebanon. Ulitmately, a significant part of the Palestinians' "liberation" is going to have to be led from within by those who want to build an economy and society for themselves rather than skim the cream off of handouts that account for more a third of GDP.

Whether you're a strong partisan of either the Israelis or the Palestinians, or take a "plague on both their houses" approach, the possibility that change may be starting on the Palestinian side should be encouraging for the long view.


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