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Analysis: Arafat's Legacy In The Palestinian Authority

  • Kathleen Ridolfo --> The death of Palestinian Authority (PA) President Yasser Arafat marks a turning point in the history of the Palestinian national movement. Arafat will certainly be remembered by his people as the father of the movement after some four decades in the forefront of the Palestinian struggle for self-determination. But, his death might also signal an opening for pluralism within the Palestinian government, which has until now been dominated by members of Arafat's ruling Fatah party.

Fatah's pervasive hold on government structures began in 1993 with the signing of the Oslo Accords and the return of the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) to the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Arafat returned to the territories from exile in Tunis, and established a government on the ground. He moved quickly to consolidate his power, placing loyal PLO (mostly Fatah) cadres in high government positions, while co-opting elites and intifada leaders from inside Palestine.

The PA came to be dominated by three groups: PLO members that returned from exile with Arafat; Fatah activists that had never left the West Bank and Gaza, many of whom had fought in the first intifada (1987-93); and indigenous Fatah supporters including intellectuals and businessmen that helped Arafat get his fledgling government off the ground.

Arafat's PA was hardly representative of the population, however, and as a result was deemed by many Palestinians to be illegitimate. While much of this had to do with Arafat's patronage practices, it also had to do with the initial refusal of secular nationalist and Islamic groups to participate in the PA. By the time opposition groups decided to join the government, the majority of positions had been filled by Fatah members.

But Fatah itself was not a cohesive structure, due to the rivalries that developed between the "outsiders," those that had returned with Arafat, and the "insiders," those party members that had never left the territories. The outsiders largely won out, and their power within the government was strengthened. The same scenario played out within the security apparatus. In an effort to consolidate and manage the disparate Fatah cadres from both inside and outside the territories after 1993, Arafat granted many of their leaders positions within the security apparatus. As a result, that apparatus grew to a 40,000-member police force. By creating a proliferation of security forces, Arafat initiated a situation whereby the forces would focus on competing with each other rather than challenge his authority.
By creating a proliferation of security forces, Arafat initiated a situation whereby the forces would focus on competing with each other rather than challenge his authority.

The pattern was continued in 1996 when Arafat sought to influence the outcome of the Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC) election. In the weeks leading up to the January 1996 PLC election, Arafat and the security services were widely criticized for interfering with the press and other abuses of power. The abuses within Fatah itself stemmed from Arafat's quest to control the election lists in each voting district. Fatah leaders who had been critical of Arafat in the run-up to the election were excluded from official lists, as were party leaders that possessed a strong base of support, such as Marwan Barghouthi. Barghouthi is a young and charismatic leader, who was arrested by Israel after the start of the second intifada, convicted of orchestrating murders, and is currently in prison.

Arafat also tried to co-opt opposition groups, such as Hamas. When that tactic failed, he detained activists and closed down their newspaper. The Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) and the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine (DFLP) were told not to participate in the elections by their leaderships in Damascus. Some PFLP and DFLP members did participate in elections, but ran as independents. The decision of their leaders to not participate in the elections effectively muted the groups as salient opposition forces to Fatah. A coalition was attempted among the smaller parties and some independent candidates, but it never got off the ground in the West Bank and participated in Gaza voting districts only. With no serious rivals, the PLC election became a contest between the local Fatah leaders that rose in prominence during the intifada, and Fatah leaders that returned from Tunis with Arafat in 1993. The outcome of the 1996 election was no surprise. Pro-Fatah candidates took 71 of the 88 seats in the PLC.

While Fatah's sweep of the PLC secured Arafat's goal of dominating the PA structure, the PLC's performance in the ensuing years would not be that of blind loyalty. The PLC at its inception was challenged to meet its duty of maintaining independence from the executive authority. To an extent, the PLC maintained a large degree of independence from the executive, though it was not entirely free from the corruption and co-optation that occurred there. More important to its duties, the PLC's ability to accomplish assigned tasks was greatly diminished by the president's intransigence when it came to ratifying laws, leaving it virtually powerless to the PA structure. Arafat largely ignored the PLC, refusing to ratify laws and resolutions passed by the council. The atmosphere within the government was seen in the apathy of Palestinian citizens, who often said they felt as if they were living under two occupations -- the Israeli, and the occupation imposed on it by the PA, under Arafat's rule.

The eruption of the intifada in September 2000 was as much aimed at the PA as it was at Israel. The uprising saw the emergence of Barghouthi as a threat to Arafat's rule. Although a member of Fatah, Barghouthi had been sidelined a number of times by the PA, first in his quest to run on the Fatah ticket in the PLC elections (Arafat removed his name from the list; Barghouthi ran as an independent and won). He was later stripped of his powers as secretary-general of the High Committee of Fatah in the West Bank because of his outspokenness against Arafat's leadership and the corruption by "outside" leaders within the PA.

At the start of the second intifada, Barghouthi headed Fatah's Tanzim militia in Ramallah. His ability to retain control over the militia, much to Arafat's dismay, came from his support from the Palestinian street. In December 2000, Barghouthi was quoted in the "Jerusalem Post" as calling for an "intifada government" with Hamas. "I think the intifada created a new basis for the peace process, and I think the political leadership has to take this into consideration. We need new delegations, new negotiations," he said, hinting at the need for an government inclusive of opposition groups, which would place opposition leaders in more prominent positions within the PA. But as the intifada raged on, it became clear that Arafat could not control the situation.

As the intifada progressed over the past four years and Israel arrested or killed many intifada leaders, the same leadership that was critical of Arafat's rule, Arafat remained at the helm of an unraveling power base. Internal conflicts grew as some Palestinians demanded change, both on the Israeli front, and to meet ever-increasing demands for reform from within. One of the most destabilizing factors within the PA stemmed from Arafat's relations with the former head of preventive security in Gaza, Muhammad Dahlan. A Fatah member, Dahlan had a contentious relationship with Arafat and resigned from his position at least twice in the past four years, most recently in 2002, when he took up the position of security adviser. He later became interior minister when Mahmud Abbas was appointed prime minister in 2003, but left when Abbas's short tenure ended. Both men had pushed for government reforms. Dahlan took a strong stand against Arafat in August 2004, accusing the Palestinian leadership of squandering some $5 billion in aid. He also supports a resumption in negotiations with Israel and an end to the intifada. His criticism of Arafat led some PA members to accuse him of playing into the hands of Israel. Dahlan is reportedly well liked by Israeli and U.S. leaders.

Like Barghouthi, Dahlan is young (both men are in their 40s) and charismatic. While his support is limited in the West Bank, he holds the support of many Gazans. And like Barghouthi, he played a prominent role in the first intifada; both men were arrested and jailed by Israel, eventually expelled, and ended up in Tunis with Arafat before his return to the territories. Yet, their credibility comes from their street support as "insider" Palestinians. Both men have called for pluralism within the government. But neither man is capable of leading all the Palestinian people -- their constituencies remain limited: Barghouthi in the West Bank and Dahlan in Gaza.

Dahlan told Al-Jazeera television in an 11 November interview that he hoped that Arafat would be replaced "through an institution, a collective leadership." "I said eight years ago, and I repeated this a month ago and a few days ago, and will repeat it now that nobody has ambitions in authority because the [Palestinian] Authority is in ruins. Nobody has ambitions for assuming any position. Everybody is rallying round. This is a moment of unity, reconciliation, and understanding, and we will transfer power in accordance with the law, the basic law, the law and regulations in the Fatah movement, the PLO, and the Palestinian Authority," he said. Asked about the likelihood of an internal breakdown within the Palestinian Authority that might lead to civil war, Dahlan said: "All our agreements and differences were always under his umbrella and never left the Palestinian framework. Therefore, over the past 10 days, we have shown full responsibility and will demonstrate this responsibility over the coming years."

According to a 23-26 September poll conducted by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research (PCPSR) and posted to its website (, 22 percent of respondents in the West Bank and Gaza said that they would vote for Barghouthi for vice president should elections be held. Four percent of respondents said they would vote for Dahlan. Ninety-three percent of respondents supported internal and external calls for fundamental reform within the PA. The poll also found a 10 percentage-point increase (from 39 to 49 percent) in calls for the resignation of Prime Minister Ahmad Quray, also known as Abu Ala. Another 39 percent of respondents said they did not want Quray to resign.

The PCPSR poll found the following PA institutions were rated positively by respondents: PLC (30 percent), the cabinet (33 percent), security services (35 percent), judicial authority and courts (39 percent), and the PA presidency (42 percent). Opposition forces received the highest level of positive evaluation at 53 percent. Eighty-eight percent of respondents said that they believe corruption exists within the PA, with 84 percent saying it exists in ministries, 73 percent saying it exists in the PLC, and 64 percent believing it exists in the PA presidency. What this means is that the PA, to continue as an institution, will not only have to implement necessary reforms, it will have no alternative than to seek a more pluralistic structure.

Progress, however, will be slow, and likely end up as a competition between Hamas, should it choose to join the government, and Fatah. The poll found that Fatah's popularity stood at 29 percent and Hamas at 22 percent; in Gaza, Hamas stood at 30 percent and Fatah at 24 percent. If elections are held 60 days from now, as the law calls for, there will be little time for the opposition groups sidelined by Arafat over the past 11 years to develop a political platform and nominate candidates. Otherwise, we will likely see a coalition dominated by Hamas and Fatah, with two divergent ideologies, which will certainly lead to continued political turmoil.

[For more on the Palestinian Authority after Arafat's death, see "With Arafat Gone, What Next For The Palestinian Leadership?"]