death of PA Chairman Yasser Arafat has re-focused world attention
on Palestinian politics. New hopes have arisen for the possible
revival of the diplomatic process between Israelis and Palestinians.
Yet, a sober understanding of the dynamics of power in Palestinian
politics remains limited. Observers were shocked by the sudden
eruption of internecine Palestinian violence in the Gaza Strip
during the period of mourning for Arafat. Much speculation abounds
as to the ability of a new Palestinian leadership to impose
its will on the bewildering mass of competing factions. At the
same time, the emerging new Palestinian leader, former PA Prime
Minister Mahmoud Abbas, has made encouraging statements regarding
his desire to take action, unify the Palestinian security services
and move on to a ‘new era’.
the dynamics of internal Palestinian politics thus becomes crucial
in ascertaining the extent to which a real possibility exists
for the revival of negotiations. This paper will focus on the
different factions and power centres in Palestinian politics,
and the dynamics in operation between them. Which are the groupings
most likely to exert influence on the Palestinian stance in
the period to come? What can this tell us about the chances
for progress toward peace?
the outset, it is important to highlight the sheer proliferation
of groupings and factions operating within Palestinian politics,
both within the Fatah movement  and beyond it. Within Fatah alone, analysts
identify at least five major factions. Palestinian political
life is also characterised by the overlap of differing institutions
- the Palestine Liberation Organisation (the PLO), the Palestinian
Authority  (the PA) and Fatah - and is further complicated
by the presence of 14 different security agencies. This is without
consideration of the smaller movements within the PLO and the
Islamist organisations outside it, all of which contain factions
and interest groups of their own. The Fatah movement, however,
remains the core of Palestinian nationalism and the most important
centre of power, without serious competitors in this regard.
use of the term ‘faction’ gives a misleading sense of coherence.
No real parties exist: there are no disciplined groupings or
generally recognised charismatic leaders. Rather, the structure
is loose and rapidly shifting. Ideology is virtually non-existent;
the often-used terms Left, Right, and Centre are meaningless
in this context. In general, too, connections between local
leaderships in the West Bank and the
Gaza Strip are weak, and no clear hierarchy or chain of command
designated no successor, and, thus, no potential successor,
including Mahmoud Abbas, enjoys a broad base of support. Instead,
all significant Palestinian leaders are limited institutionally
and geographically, strong either within the West
Bank or Gaza,
but not in both. Some of those
who receive the most extensive coverage in the Western media
are in fact quite uninfluential within Palestinian politics.
headed three different Palestinian organisations. Each of these
has been faced with the task of finding a new leader in the
period following his death.
PLO: Arafat was chairman of the PLO Executive Committee;
Abu Mazen was its secretary. Farouk Kaddoumi is the
third Fatah representative. The other members represent pro-Fatah
independents or other groups. The PLO today is largely a shadow
organisation that supposedly represents, but has no control
over, the refugee communities in Lebanon,
or other places more sympathetic to a hard line. The result
might be a split between Palestinians inside and outside the
West Bank and Gaza.
PA: Elections have been announced for the Chairmanship
of the PA, to take place on January 9. Abu Mazen is the Fatah
candidate, and therefore widely viewed as the strongest contender
to assume the role of the next PA Chairman. However, the candidacy
of Marwan Barghouti poses a serious challenge to Abu Mazen.
Hamas will not run candidates, but many of its supporters
would vote for the most radical candidate.
The new General Secretary of Fatah, as chosen by the Central
Committee, is leading hardliner Farouk Kaddoumi.
the factions in Fatah, none has loyal hierarchies or close alliances.
They are merely interest groups. Each of them has serious weaknesses
and only limited support. A closer examination of the breakdown
of factional groupings within Fatah illustrates these contentions.
contains at least five interest groups, which can be identified
based on career path, institutional interests, and political
are Fatah veterans, many of whom live outside the West
Bank and Gaza.
They hail mainly from areas now part of Israel,
and have spent years openly demanding total victory, no peace
agreement, and Israel’s
complete annihilation. They see no reason to change this standpoint.
These elements dominate the movement at grassroots level. Prominent
figures among them include:
Kaddoumi, who was elected General Secretary of Fatah following
Arafat’s death, is a member of the PLO Executive Committee.
Popular with the Fatah rank and file, he rejected the Oslo
accords, and is close to Syria.
He is a powerful figure, who is likely to attempt to torpedo
any attempt at a ceasefire and return to negotiations. He
could act as a conduit for growing Syrian influence on the
PLO. Kaddoumi resides in Tunis.
Habash, secretary of Fatah’s Revolutionary Committee, heads
the movement’s Ideological Mobilisation Department and is
a member of the Fatah Central Committee. In 2000, Habash authored
a major Fatah paper explaining in detail why the Palestinian
movement would never make real peace with Israel.
al-Zanun, head of the Palestinian National Council and a member
of the Fatah Central Committee, claims that the legislative
body he heads never even changed the PLO Charter to drop the
passages calling for Israel’s
destruction. Although Arafat repeatedly insisted the contrary
to President Clinton, he never contradicted or disciplined
Zanun, whose popularity and prominence grew in the months
before Arafat’s death.
Former Members of Arafat’s Entourage
are individuals who owed their political careers to the patronage
of Arafat. Often criticised by the rank and file for corruption,
they nevertheless possess experience and bureaucratic status.
They include Hakam Balaoui, Tayyib Abd al-Rahim, and perhaps
the better known Palestinian Foreign Minister Nabil Shaath and
Palestinian chief negotiator
far, this group receives the most attention in the world media,
albeit they are fewer in number than the other factions. Their
political position is support for negotiations with Israel
toward establishing an independent Palestinian state. They include:
Abbas, also known as Abu Mazen, whose profile is very much
that of a traditionalist hardliner based on his career path
and ideology, but whose keen intellect, along with mistreatment
by Arafat, pushed him in a different direction. In an interview
with a Jordanian newspaper last year, Abu Mazen was outspokenly
critical of the ‘armed intifada’. Abu Mazen is in a strong
position in formal terms, having been the secretary of the
PLO Central Committee since 1996. He is most frequently mentioned
as the Fatah candidate for the PA Chairmanship in the upcoming
elections on January 9. However, he is 69-years-old and lacks
charisma or any organised base of support. His moderation
as prime minister made the hardliners and grassroots factions
view him as being too soft on America
Recent comments made by Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades terrorists
Zekaria Zbayde and Nasser Juma’a indicate the inclination
of grassroots radicals to challenge Abu Mazen’s authority.
The physical attack on his entourage on November 14 also demonstrates
this. The result of all this may well be that, while Abu Mazen
might become the next PA Chairman, the forces operating upon
him may make it difficult for him to achieve anything.
Qureia, also called Abu Ala,
is a career PLO bureaucrat and perhaps the most enthusiastic
among Palestinian leaders for the Oslo
peace process. If it had been up to him, a peace deal would
have been made in 2000 at Camp David.
But he is also timid and, at 67, has had some health difficulties.
Dahlan, 43, is the only moderate with control over armed men
and could be among the top leaders - or even the top leader
- when the next generation finally takes power. Once Arafat’s
protégé, he fell out of favour with Arafat while leader of
the PA’s Preventive
Security Force in the Gaza Strip. He has been bold in challenging
the Fatah mainstream. Yet, he also has numerous enemies and
would face serious challenges in imposing his control in Gaza,
from Fatah hardliners and from Hamas.
radicals of the new generation are mainly from the West
Bank, and many were active in the first intifada.
They feel they represent the movement’s true revolutionary spirit.
The Tanzim (the grassroots Fatah organisation in the West
Bank) and the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades (the Tanzim-linked
and Fatah-backed terrorist wing) are now the most organised
and active radical groups in Fatah. They believe it is necessary
to drive Israel
out of the West Bank and Gaza Strip by
force and are strong advocates of long-term armed struggle.
These younger radicals have no representation on the Fatah Central
Committee. They are alienated from the traditional hardliners
and contemptuous of the PLO-PA bureaucracy (including the official
security agencies), which they view as greedy, corrupt and worn-out.
Their leader is Marwan Barghouti, 44, the key architect of the
current intifada, who is now in jail in Israel
serving five consecutive life sentences and another 40 years
for terrorist activities. Barghouti has taken the exact opposite
career path of Muhammad Dahlan, perhaps his leading rival for
leadership in the next generation. Having started out as a harsh
critic of Arafat, Barghouti came to portray himself as the leader’s
base is, like the others’, limited geographically (in his case
largely to the northern West Bank), and
his enemies are numerous - including the traditional hardliners,
PLO-PA bureaucrats, security agencies and moderates.
an astonishing series of events, Barghouti first announced,
then withdrew, then re-announced his candidacy for the PA Chairmanship.
His final decision to run has led to his being subjected to
widespread criticism both in Fatah’s ranks and more broadly.
Barghouti’s presence and popularity puts still another constraint
on moderates by demonstrating the terrorist forces' power.
14 Palestinian security services reported directly to Arafat.
In most cases, these services retain separate branches in the
West Bank and Gaza Strip. No military
high command and no institutional relationship exist between
the various agencies. They operate on their own, often in competition
with each other. These groups’ officers are unlikely to stage
coups, but they are important factors in post-Arafat political
jockeying: as Fatah members, they participate directly in that
organisation’s deliberations and manoeuvrings.
security agencies will probably act separately and function
largely as fiefdoms headed by warlords, following orders only
if they wish. Much antagonism thrives among them and the Tanzim/Al-Aqsa
Martyrs Brigades, so it is expected that some violence may erupt.
In the short run, they will probably support the Fatah establishment,
but in the longer term they could overcome their fragmentation
to become a political power in their own right.
these, the only one worthy of serious consideration is Hamas.
By contrast, Islamic Jihad and the small, leftist groupings
within the PLO have only tiny levels of support among the Palestinian
public. Hamas at present does not represent a serious political
threat to Fatah. It is reckoned to command between 20-30% of
public support in the West Bank and Gaza.
Hamas’s power lies in its potential to act as a ‘spoiler’ against
any attempt on the part of a moderate-led Palestinian Authority
to move toward a ceasefire and negotiations with Israel.
The movement’s potential in this regard is already apparent.
It has rejected outright a proposed ceasefire in pre-1967 Israel.
It also rejects participation in the PA elections, and it has
refused Abu Mazen’s proposal for the formation of a unified
national leadership in return for Hamas’s abandoning its negation
in principle of all negotiations with Israel.
most worrying scenario would be of a growing de facto partnership between
Hamas and the grassroots radicals in Fatah, against what both
regard as the excessive moderation of Abu Mazen and the Fatah
moderates. It is also worth mentioning the crop of independents
who have announced their candidacy. Most prominent among these
is Mustafa Barghouti, a Palestinian physician and the leader
of the Palestinian National Initiative, a grass-roots independent
grouping. Mustafa Barghouti is the cousin of Marwan Barghouti.
Other independent candidates include Abdel Sattar Qassem, a
political science professor, Majda al-Batch, a journalist and
the only female candidate, and Monib al-Masri, a billionaire
emerging Palestinian political reality is one of deep divisions.
Given the intensity of the struggle for power, and the questionable
nationalist and Islamic credentials of the moderates, a moderate
leadership of the PA under Abu Mazen may find itself unable,
despite its own desires, to make bold moves toward implementing
much needed change. Offering compromises or concessions, acting
too friendly toward the US
countering terrorism and seeking to quiet incitement are likely
to bring down the wrath of armed terrorist factions.
moderates could reach out to the security services, which are
known to resent the independent armed strength of Fatah radicals
and Hamas. Another potential force in support of stability would
be the bureaucracy of the Palestinian Authority, which seeks
stability and order. Finally, moderates may attempt an appeal
to a Palestinian public impoverished and exhausted by four years
of violence. It remains to be seen whether Abu Mazen and those
around him will possess the courage and political sophistication
necessary to attempt moves of this type.
hardliners around Kaddoumi may prefer to maintain Abu Mazen
and Abu Ala
as the nominal heads of the Palestinian Authority, while making
it clear to them that they may not attempt any bold moves toward
reform and change. The recent comments by leading Al-Aqsa Martyrs
Brigades terrorist Zekaria Zbayde, warning Abu Mazen not to
depart from the Palestinian consensus, and by Nasser Juma’a’s
threat of possible violence against the PA leadership, offer
evidence of this - as does the attack on Abu Mazen’s entourage.
a factor that must not be forgotten is the prestige and legitimacy
enjoyed by those who utilise violence (and those who support
them) in Palestinian politics. The still dominant norms in Palestinian
political life extol these supposed patriots as the natural
leaders of the nation. Their ringing exhortations to further
sacrifice, in the name of the ultimate goal of the destruction
of Israel and the ‘right of return’, retain enormous potency
in Palestinian discussion, with attempts to argue against them
seen as a betrayal of Palestinians sacrificed in previous attempts
to wage war against Israel. This mindset thus feeds off its
own many failures. More than any other single figure, the late
PA Chairman Yasser Arafat was responsible for the creation and
elevation of this outlook. It would be a historical irony of
the bitterest kind if indeed Arafat proves able from the grave,
through his disciples, to continue to frustrate hopes for diplomatic
the strengthening of the moderates can lead to an end of violence
and a peace agreement. Israel
will therefore be hoping for their victory. While policymakers
and observers should have no illusions regarding the many obstacles
remaining on the path to progress, it is still the responsibility
of those interested in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process
to support the moderates. Hence, the international community
must lend its strong support to the moderates, in an attempt
to improve their chances of assuming positions of power in Palestinian
politics and bringing conditions back to those in which official
negotiations can resume.
 Fatah is an acronym for Harakat Al-Tahrir Al-Watani
Al-Filastini - the Movement for the National Liberation
of Palestine. Founded in Kuwait
in 1959 by a group of Palestinian students led by Yasser
Arafat, the group began terror activity against Israel
in 1965. After the 1967 War, Fatah entered and gained control
of the PLO, a movement established in 1964 at the first
Arab summit in Cairo.
The PLO was the result of the desire of the Arab states
at that time to take a more active role in fighting Israel.
Arafat, as Fatah leader, was elected PLO chairman in 1969,
and Fatah has dominated the PLO since that time. The other
component members of the PLO are small leftist and nationalist
factions, some sponsored by Arab governments, lacking any
significant support among the Palestinian public.
 The Palestinian Authority is the administrative
body created by the Oslo Accords, intended to take on the
representation of the Palestinians of the West Bank and
Gaza, and responsible for the administrative tasks ceded
by Israel to the Palestinians in the course of negotiations.