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Palestinian politics in the post-Arafat era: the current situation

The 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’.

Understanding 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?

Background

At the outset, it is important to highlight the sheer proliferation of groupings and factions operating within Palestinian politics, both within the Fatah movement [1] 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 [2] (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.

Yet, 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 exists.

Arafat 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.

The Institutions

Arafat 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.

  • The 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, Syria, Jordan, 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.
  • The 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.
  • Fatah: The new General Secretary of Fatah, as chosen by the Central Committee, is leading hardliner Farouk Kaddoumi.  

Fatah Factional Groupings

Of 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.

Fatah contains at least five interest groups, which can be identified based on career path, institutional interests, and political viewpoint:

Traditionalist Hardliners

These 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:

  • Farouk 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.
  • Sakr 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.
  • Salim 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

These 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 Saeb Erekat.

Moderates

By 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:

  • Mahmoud 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 and Israel. 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.
  • Ahmed 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.
  • Muhammad 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.

Grassroots Radicals

These 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 great protégé.

Barghouti’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.

In 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.

Security Services

The 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.

The 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.

Non-Fatah Political Groupings

Of 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.

The 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 businessman.

Instability and division

The 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 and Israel, countering terrorism and seeking to quiet incitement are likely to bring down the wrath of armed terrorist factions.

The 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.

Fatah 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.

Conclusion

Ultimately, 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 progress.

Only 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.


[1] 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.

[2] 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.