The protracted friction between Arafat and Abbas may be heading for an all out confrontation, reports Khaled Amayreh from Ramallah
Fatah leaders have been making strenuous efforts to overcome the growing crisis between Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat and his reformist Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas. The crisis took a turn to the worse this week after Arafat intervened to re-instate Mohamed Abu Sharia, the head of the Civil Servants Bureau in Gaza hours after his dismissal by Abbas in connection with corruption charges.
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Relatives carry the body of 10- year-old Sana Da'our during her funeral in Gaza on Tuesday. Da'our died of her wounds after an Israeli helicopter fired several missiles in an attempt to assassinate a Hamas activist the previous week. The Hamas member survived, but a bystander was killed and at least 26 more were injured
Arafat is said to have personally called Abu Sharia and asked him to stay in his post. However, when the Palestinian police sought to carry out Abbas's decision, armed Fatah militiamen and Arafat loyalists arrived at the Civil Servants Bureau in downtown Gaza and threatened the police with a bloody showdown if Abu Sharia was removed from his office. The police withdrew from the scene without incident.
The contention between Arafat and Abbas is of course more than just a squabble over the dismissal or appointment of civil servants. According to some insiders, Arafat has come to feel threatened by Abbas and is increasingly convinced that both the premier and his Internal Security Minister Mohamed Dahlan are conspiring against him in concert with the Americans. Indeed, for the veteran Palestinian leader the issue goes beyond giving up some of his powers and authorities to Abbas. Arafat has argued that should he hand over the control of the Palestinian security apparatus to Abbas, he would be effectively stripped of his remaining powers and become a "powerless figurehead".
"I won't become a tartur [puppet] in the hands of Abbas," Arafat said angrily last week, according to one of his aides. Notwithstanding, it is amply clear that Abbas cannot function as prime minister if he is not empowered to carry out the tasks entrusted to him. In other words, Abbas needs to acquire "executive powers", without which he cannot expect to survive politically. Needless to say, it is obvious that these powers can be acquired only from Arafat and at his expense.
The crisis between Abbas and Arafat is complicated further by the 18-month-old confinement of the Palestinian leader to his battered Ramallah headquarters and Abbas's failure to convince the Israelis to end it. This, say informed sources, has made Arafat feel betrayed by Abbas and has exacerbated the bad chemistry between the two. In addition, Arafat has had to contend with Israel's almost daily threats to tighten the siege on him, deport or even "liquidate" him. Arafat has accused Abbas of taking a feeble position in the face of these threats. Abbas has rejected the accusations, saying he has been doing all he can in this regard.
Last week, Arafat appointed former Preventive Security Chief Jibril Rajoub as his new national security advisor. The largely symbolic step, which was apparently meant to strengthen Arafat's camp, has created further dissension and mistrust between Arafat and his premier. All of this seems to have evolved into a malevolent personality conflict between the two.
Adding to the complexity of the situation has been the recent American warning to the Palestinian Legislative Council against giving the Abbas government a vote of no confidence. American diplomats in Jerusalem reportedly met with Fatah legislators this week and warned them that the US would take "anti-Palestinian measures" if the council did not give the Abbas government a new vote of confidence. In the face of such flagrant blackmail, the council decided to postpone the confidence-giving session, hoping to find a compromise.
The postponement comes at a time of widespread dissatisfaction among legislators with the performance of the Abbas government. Some lawmakers believe that the government has been a colossal failure -- unable to stop the Israeli terror campaign against the Palestinian people, including the resumption of the assassination policy and continued building of the apartheid wall.
For his part Abbas seems to have a few, if any, options left in case the council decides to give his government a vote of no confidence. This may explain why Abbas has been threatening to submit his resignation and even exile himself to Egypt if the council's vote is not in his favour. If that were to happen, it could mean the end of Arafat and the entire Palestinian Authority. Israel could easily use the collapse of the Abbas government as a pretext to launch an all-out war on the Palestinians with the explicit purpose of ending the Palestinian Authority and killing or deporting Arafat.
This is not a merely theoretical possibility. Israeli politicians, including cabinet ministers, Knesset members as well as high- ranking military commanders have been suggesting that Israel should take advantage of any "opportunity" to bash the PA once and for all. Mindful of these dangerous prospects and aware of America's acquiescence, if not collusion, PLO officials are trying hard to hammer out a compromise between Arafat and Abbas in order to forestall a greater disaster. One Palestinian legislator proposed the creation of a national security council to resolve the differences between the two. The idea is likely to be rejected by Abbas since Arafat loyalists would likely have at least a numerical majority in the proposed council and this would effectively paralyse the government.
Meanwhile, the Abbas-Arafat showdown is demoralizing the Palestinian people at a time when Israel has embarked on a new campaign of assassinations and violence in the Palestinian territories. Among those killed by the Israeli army this week were an eight-year-old girl in Khan Younis who was getting ready to start her firs day in school. Another nine-year-old girl in Jabalyia refugee camp was burned to death by a hell- fire missile fired by an Israeli Apache helicopter gunship, and a 14-year-old boy in Nablus was shot dead by Israeli soldiers manning an armored personnel carrier.