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Middle East: Palestinians Struggle Over Form Of Government

Jerusalem, 30 April 1999 (RFE/RL) -- As the Palestinians and Israel engage in a contentious peace process, the Palestinians have been waging a no less serious struggle among themselves over what form of government they want in the future.

The struggle pits the Palestinian Authority, and its secular vision of government, against its chief opponent the Islamic Resistance Movement (HAMAS), which seeks to build an Islamic state.

The two sides have clashed frequently because HAMAS recognizes neither the peace process nor any of the institutions it has created -- foremost among them the Palestinian Authority itself. The inauguration of the Authority in July 1994 under the Oslo accords marked the start of Palestinian autonomy rule.

Instead of a peace process with Israel, HAMAS calls for the establishment of an Islamic state upon the whole of the land now under control of the Jewish state. The organization -- whose numbers are difficult to estimate but are believed in the hundreds of thousands -- has consistently launched attacks on Israeli targets to sabotage the peace process whenever it begins to make progress threatening that goal.

At the same time, the Palestinian Authority and HAMAS have come into violent conflict because the Authority fears the group also hopes to remove it. The Palestinian Authority has periodically arrested members of the organization in crackdowns which marry its own concerns with Israeli demands for greater security in exchange for greater movement in the peace process.

Yet even as the Palestinian Authority and HAMAS compete, sometimes overtly, sometimes covertly, they co-exist in a tacit recognition that they must contain their struggle -- at least for now -- in the interest of Palestinian unity against Israel.

The leader of HAMAS, the aging Sheikh Ahmad Yassin, has lived in Gaza City since Israel released him in 1997 after eight years in jail. This week, he even attended a meeting of the Palestinian leadership discussing whether to declare an independent state after May 4, the first time a HAMAS representative has attended a meeting of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). The chairman of the PLO is Yasser Arafat, who is also the president of the Palestinian Authority.

Analysts say that the future of Palestinian society will be decided by the struggle between the Authority and HAMAS and who wins that battle will largely be determined by the success of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

Ghassan al-Khatib, head of the independent Jerusalem Media and Communications Center, told RFE/RL that the Palestinian Authority has staked its appeal to Palestinians on the notion that it can win for them an independent state. He says failure would confirm HAMAS as the only viable alternative.

"They [HAMAS] were relatively speaking marginal when the ... PLO signed the agreement with Israel, but when this peace process started to face difficulties, they started to take advantage because the Palestinian secular leadership is taking a big gamble, they have dropped all their other options and they stick to the peace process and if it fails Arafat will fail with it and the only alternative is HAMAS."

Al-Khatib says that the forces within Palestinian society backing the peace process are secular elements which are overwhelmingly Muslim but oppose fundamentalism. He says that if the Palestinian Authority manages to end the conflict with Israel in a peaceful way it would be a major defeat for the fundamentalists and ensure than any eventual Palestinian state would be secular and progressive.

The struggle between the Palestinian Authority and HAMAS is the most visible divide to emerge within the Palestinian autonomous areas as they experiment with their first period of self-rule in many generations.

Until 1994, the Palestinians had been largely directed by their own combatant organizations waging a decades-long struggle with Israel. And for centuries prior to that, their fate had been determined by empires, only the most recent of which were the British and Ottoman.

But Palestinians are also engaged in a second debate, this one over what sort of secular government -- democratic or autocratic -- rules the autonomous areas now.

On paper, the Palestinian Authority appears to be democratic and to meet one of the key goals of the Oslo accords. That goal -- expressed by the PLO, Israel and most countries backing the accords -- was that self-rule should foster democratic government as the best guarantor of the peace process. The start of autonomous rule was followed a year and-a-half later by elections for a Palestinian parliament and for president of the Palestinian Authority.

But while the institutions follow democratic models, their functioning is said to be dominated by a single party: Arafat's own Fatah, the leading group in the PLO. Palestinian analyst Al-Khatib says:

"Politically I think we are developing the one-party regime, so this is on the account [at the expense] of pluralism and democracy. But it is not only mainly a one-man show. [Arafat] also depends on the strength of his party. The vast majority of the cabinet members are from this party, and all the high ranking security officers ... are from this party, and the key positions in the economy are [held by] this party."

Al-Khatib says that the Palestinian Authority is influenced by the traditional style of governance in the Arab world which, in his words, has little respect for democracy, the due process of law and the separation of authority. But he says the expectations of many Palestinians are different.

"They came to govern a people which has been struggling against Israeli occupation for the last 30 years and because of this we have the ambition of living a democratic political life with respect for human rights. That's why there is a conflict between the [Palestinian] Authority and the public."

The analyst predicts that the style of governance in Palestinian society will eventually settle somewhere between these two expectations. He says the Palestinian Authority will not be able to rule solely with the model of one-party regimes but neither will the Palestinian people achieve the kind of democracy many wish for.

Characteristic of the Palestinian Authority's ambiguous practice of democracy are its preparations for the eventual succession of Yasser Arafat. There are currently two sets of laws in place governing how Arafat would be succeeded. Under one law, governing PLO procedures, his place as chairman would go to a second in command until a leader could be elected. But under another law, governing Palestinian Authority procedures, his place as president would go to the speaker of parliament until a new leader could be elected.

Such a two-track system can work without a conflict so long as the new PLO chairman and the Authority president are the same person, or the two bodies continue to be dominated by the same party which agrees upon the new leader. But in practice, determining who will follow Arafat could prove difficult.

The reason is that Arafat has always steered clear of naming a deputy and his generally acknowledged second-in-command changes over time. Today it is Mahmoud Abbas, also known as Abu Mazen, who has led negotiations with Israel since the start of the Oslo peace accords.

But, as critics say, such a succession system based on a strong man and a strong party offers few guarantees. Arafat's undeclared number-two man today is not the same as he was five years ago and people may not agree on who he is some years hence.

(This is the fourth feature in a five-part series evaluating the Israeli-Palestinian peace process at the conclusion of the Oslo interim period on May 4.)