Numbers man calls the shots in the West Bank

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 23 June, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 23 June, 2007, 12:00am

Salam Fayyad, a soft-spoken economist who has taken on the daunting job of prime minister of the Palestinian Authority's emergency government, is a rare feature on the Middle Eastern leadership landscape: a political moderate and man of integrity who believes in the power of rational action and persuasion.

But it is an open question as to how far those qualities will take him in the face of the self-righteous Islamic fundamentalist Hamas movement.

Bringing order to the West Bank and liberating Palestinians from their fears of masked militiamen is the top priority of his government, which started work this week, Mr Fayyad said in an interview on Wednesday.

'I have a lot of different roles, but in my way of thinking the mission is one mission, to restore law and order, at first in the West Bank. That is my highest priority, that is where the focus is,' Mr Fayyad said.

'I want everyone to feel secure, I want people to begin to get a sense of hope about the future and to feel they can move about without any sense of fear.'

The chaos is a legacy of Yasser Arafat, who facilitated the growth of the militias after the outbreak of the second intifada uprising against Israel in 2000. Most of the problems emanate from the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade which is loosely affiliated with president Mahmoud Abbas' Fatah movement

Mr Fayyad, a former World Bank senior official who went on to become finance minister, took office after Mr Abbas sacked prime minister Ismail Haniyeh of Hamas after they took over the Gaza Strip.

But Hamas rejected the move and insisted Mr Haniyeh was still prime minister. On Thursday Hamas said of those who took part in Mr Fayyad's cabinet that 'history and the Palestinian people will damn them for this crime'.

Mr Haniyeh's Gaza government is also making personal security a priority, saying that with the removal of Fatah it will be able to restore order.

Mr Fayyad said the sway the militiamen have come to hold over West Bank towns since the second intifada was threatening the very existence of the Palestinian cause. 'Either we are really serious about building a state or we are going to allow the situation to go on where militias get stronger. That is totally inconsistent with building institutions capable of forming the basis of statehood.'

Members of Al-Aqsa depict themselves as heroic fighters against Israeli occupation, but as the uprising wore on they became a dominant and terrifying force within West Bank society. Their actions have included killing, kidnapping, shooting a legislator and attacking stores and restaurants.

Ramallah-based analyst Hani Masri said Mr Fayyad would be hamstrung by the lack of Fatah members in his government.

Since the Al-Aqsa brigade are a Fatah phenomenon, only strong Fatah personalities can influence them, Mr Masri says. Moreover, Mr Fayyad will immediately face demands from Israel that are nearly impossible to fulfil.

'Israel's attitude is that first of all, he should provide security to them even while they continue building the [West Bank separation] wall, the settlements, and carrying out assassinations [of militants]. This is very, very difficult.'

Mr Fayyad has taken on tough missions before. He enhanced his international standing by rooting out graft as finance minister under Arafat. But he has no security experience. Asked if he would be able to bring the Al-Aqsa Brigades into line, he said he would proceed in a measured fashion.

And he dismisses the idea his background as a technocrat leaves him unqualified for taking momentous political decisions in all realms of Palestinian life.

'As minister of finance I was close to all facets of government. Being treasurer of a country puts you at the centre of things in terms of policies and ultimately of the resources to implement policies. So this is not too difficult a shift for me.'

Salam Fayyad

Born in 1952 near West Bank city of Tulkarm

Earned PhD in economics from University of Texas

Began teaching economics at Jordon's Yarmouk University

Worked at World Bank in Washington from 1987-1995

Served as IMF representative to the Palestinian Authority until 2001

Served as finance minister under Fatah-controlled administration from 2002-2005

Resigned late in 2005 to launch independent Third Way party