The president's men
Between Dahlan and Rajoub, Palestinians are offered very little to choose from, writes Muna Hamzeh
It is becoming increasingly difficult for ordinary Palestinians in the occupied territories to be overly concerned about the escalating power struggle between their president and his prime minister. To many, both Yasser Arafat and Mahmoud Abbas are two sides of the same coin, ostensibly more interested in strengthening their control than in advancing the national interests of their people. Besides, as the residents of the occupied territories continue to be the victims of horrendous Israeli war crimes and devastating occupation measures, the issue of who runs the government of a non-existent state is the least of their concerns or worries.
Nevertheless, two recent and important developments on the internal Palestinian front cannot but raise grave misgivings about the direction that both Arafat and Abbas are taking. Succumbing to US and Israeli pressure, the Palestinian Authority (PA) on 28 August froze the bank accounts of some 36 Islamic charities in Gaza that gave badly needed monthly payments to hundreds of orphans, Intifada victims and families of prisoners as well as families of Palestinians killed by the Israeli army. The move came six days after the Bush administration froze the assets of six Hamas leaders and five European-based organisations it claims were channelling money to resistance groups.
With unemployment rates reaching unprecedented proportions and with an alarming number of Palestinians living under the poverty line, the timing of the freeze was badly calculated. It was construed by ordinary Palestinians as further proof that the PA is more intent on fulfilling Washington's (and Jerusalem's) wishes than in preserving national interests. Thousands of angry orphans, wheel-chair bound Intifada victims and destitute families took to the streets of Palestinian cities carrying banners saying, among other things, "don't turn us into beggars" and "no to bread confiscation". The scenes were another reminder that the PA is incapable of meeting its people's minimal needs and expectations.
In an equally dangerous and damaging move, Arafat on 25 August appointed Jibril Rajoub, the former head of the Preventive Security Service (PSS) in the West Bank, as his new national security adviser. The timing of this decision did not go unnoticed. Soon after a Hamas suicide bomber killed 21 Israelis in West Jerusalem on 19 August, US Secretary of State Colin Powell publicly called on the Palestinian president to make available to Abbas the security apparatus under his control. Instead, Arafat moved to tighten his control over the security forces by creating the new post of national security adviser, appointing Rajoub to it, and attempting -- as of yet unsuccessfully -- to push for the appointment of veteran security chief General Nasr Youssef as interior minister. By doing so, the Palestinian leader was sending out two clear messages to the US, Israel and the Abbas government: One, that he still calls all the shots on Palestinian policies; and second, that he will do what he can to curb the power of Prime Minister Abbas and his security chief Mohamed Dahlan.
While some analysts might be intrigued by Arafat's uncanny ability to resurface as the Palestinian power to be reckoned with after long months of isolation, his crafty manoeuvres are not so easily bought by the Palestinians. Rajoub's appointment means that both Arafat and Abbas have now selected as their security chiefs men who not only have a known history of severe human rights abuses, but men who are known to be favoured by Washington and willing to go to extremes in quelling dissent and harassing political opponents. At a time when Israel's occupation army is violating the most basic of Palestinian human rights, the last thing the Palestinians need are men in their government who are willing to do the same.
Even political opponents and members of other Palestinian security services did not escape from the grip of the PSS. In 1998, Hamas accused Rajoub and then general-secretary of the Palestinian presidency Tayeb Abdul-Rahim of collaborating with Israel in the death of Hamas bomb maker Muhyieddin Sharif who was found dead on 29 March of that year at the site of a car bomb explosion in an industrial section of Ramallah. A Palestinian police investigation had concluded that Sharif was shot dead in a power struggle inside Hamas and that the car at the scene was blown to hide the evidence. But Hamas denied this, insisting instead that Sharif was assassinated and demanding that Rajoub and Abdul-Rahim resign from their posts. Of course, neither did. In another incident in the late 1990s, Major Farid Assalya, an aide to then police commander General Youssef was abducted by PSS agents in Gaza and detained for several months, during which he was beaten and thrown from a second-storey window. Assalya was accused of treason for his alleged cooperation with US attempts to obtain the extradition of the Palestinians who abducted the Achille Lauro cruise ship in 1985. Many newspapers and organisations that were critical of the Palestinian leadership received visits by PSS agents and were threatened with closures.
The list of the human rights violations that the PSS was accused of under the leadership of Rajoub and Dahlan goes on. In the same token, Rajoub was the man who between 1996 and 1997 ordered his agents to crack down on Islamic Jihad and Hamas activists, jailing quite a few for extended periods of time. It is therefore questionable why Arafat would choose Rajoub to become his new national security adviser at a time when both Israel and the US want the PA to fully crackdown on armed resistance groups.
Equally surprising about Arafat's appointment is that it was not all that long ago that Arafat pulled his gun on Rajoub and would have pulled the trigger if he wasn't stopped by his aides. The incident occurred in February 2002 at a time of a growing rift between Arafat and the PSS over the scale the crackdown Arafat had promised against armed resistance fighters. Arafat apparently wanted to dismantle Fatah's Al- Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, but Rajoub who was eager to dismantle Islamic resistance groups was not willing to do the same with members of his own movement. Although Rajoub publicly pledged allegiance to Arafat after the incident, Arafat waited till July 2002 before firing Rajoub and naming then governor of Jenin, Zuhair Manasra, as his predecessor. While Rajoub remained in the shadows following his dismissal, he reportedly retained a good following amongst the PSS men that he once controlled.
While no one can predict how events on the internal Palestinian front will play themselves out in the next week, the gap between the type of leadership that the Palestinians deserve and the type of leadership they have is rapidly widening. And there are no indications that the leadership has the needed foresight or credentials to take its people towards liberation.