Dithering Arafat to bring house down

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 12 February, 2004, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 12 February, 2004, 12:00am

Observers warn that a lack of progress with Israel will foster factional fighting and destroy the Palestinian leadership

The Palestinian leadership is in crisis and threatening to implode over an inability to respond to Israeli initiatives, observers said yesterday.

Unless Palestinian president Yasser Arafat made firm responses soon, his leadership, the governing Palestinian Authority, and other groups would collapse under a tide of factionalism, they said.

The head of the Jerusalem-based Palestinian Academic Society for the Study of International Affairs, Mahdi Abdul Hadi, said although Mr Arafat remained a strong symbol of Palestinian identity, the leader was 'living a big lie'.

'He doesn't realise that he's sinking and that the Palestinian Authority is on the verge of collapse,' Dr Hadi said.

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has said Jewish settlers will withdraw from Gaza and abandon isolated settlements in the West Bank. But despite legal and political challenges, work is continuing on a security barrier separating the two sides.

The Palestinian discontent was highlighted last week by the resignation of 370 rank-and-file members of the main Palestinian political grouping, Fatah, amid claims of incompetence and corruption by their leaders.

Ahmed Khalidi, a Palestinian academic at Oxford University, does not believe the resignations will damage Fatah, which he says has always represented disparate and varied opinions from a cross-section of Palestinian society. But he does acknowledge that the move is proof of an increasing divergence of views over how to move forward in brokering peace with Israel.

'For most Palestinians, this juncture seems a critical one,' Dr Khalidi said. 'There's a general sense that we need to get our act together and think clearly about where we're going - more than any threat to Arafat or his leadership or the leadership as a whole.'

He accuses Mr Sharon of taking advantage of the power vacuum to extend Israeli control over the lives of Palestinians. The announced measures are for the good of Israelis and not Palestinians, he says.

'For the first time, the Israeli leadership is marking on the ground what Israel wants to see in Palestine,' he alleged. 'This is a new Israeli colonisation and partition of the land unilaterally.'

Dr Khalidi says Mr Arafat's weak leadership in responding to Mr Sharon's initiatives has created three views among Palestinians, prompting the worsening divisions.

Fatah's military wing, Hamas, is promoting a culture of sacrifice by suicide bombers and terrorists. Mr Arafat sees the solution through maintaining identity and pride without surrendering, while others, such as Palestinian prime minister Ahmed Qorei, see the international community as their saviour.

Mr Qorei is in Europe this week calling on nations to pressure Israel to end the construction of the wall. Israel's Supreme Court on Monday heard a petition challenging the legality of the structure, which the government says will provide protection against terrorists. The International Court of Justice is also considering an opinion on a case brought before it on the barrier.

But Israeli commentator Gerald Steinberg says Mr Sharon's announcement and the wall are proof that separation is taking place. He says Palestinians will soon have to take responsibility for their own lives and the areas under their control. The looming eventuality is causing a power struggle.

'Blaming Israel and attempting to use political instruments like the United Nations and the International Court of Justice don't answer fundamental Palestinian requirements,' Dr Steinberg, the director of the Began-Sadat Centre for Strategic Studies at Bar Ilan University in Jerusalem, said. 'They're going to have to do something positive.'

He accuses Mr Arafat of avoiding decision-making and says that as a result, his people are suffering economically and politically. Organisations such as the Palestinian Authority and Palestine Liberation Organisation will disintegrate amid increasingly serious defections and leadership challenges.

'Things will be quite different a year from now - Israel will complete the separation process and the Palestinians will have to come up with some sort of response to that economically, politically and in other ways,' Dr Steinberg predicted. 'If Arafat is unable to deliver a response - and I believe he is unable to respond in any serious way - there will be other people who will assert leadership.'