Things to come
Sharon's disengagement plan will dominate the new year and the Palestinian leadership is in no shape to meet the challenge, reports Graham Usher from Jerusalem
"The Palestinian dream of achieving an independent state will happen no matter how long it takes," Yasser Arafat promised on 1 January, the 39th anniversary of his Fatah movement. Three days on -- and closer to earth -- the Palestinian leader admitted the dream is not imminent. 2004 "is going to be a difficult year" he told reporters outside his bullet-holed headquarters in Ramallah.
There are some in the leadership who fear it may prove terminal, if not for the dream then for the political "peace of the brave" they and Arafat have long argued is the only means to realise it. They have grounds for pessimism.
One is Israel's ongoing military actions in the occupied territories, which appear designed to scuttle any prospects of a Palestinian cease-fire, currently Arafat and Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qurei's sole route back to the diplomatic plan known as the roadmap.
In an incursion that has lasted nearly two weeks the Israeli army re-occupied Nablus in the hunt for fugitives, arms and the routes that connect them. Seventeen Palestinians have been killed, over 200 wounded, 30,000 have been put under a more or less permanent curfew and ancient Palestinian properties ransacked. "Nablus is on the brink of a humanitarian disaster," said Yasser Alawneh, a monitor from the Palestinian Commission for Citizens Rights on 5 January.
On Wednesday the army invaded Tulkarm, leaving one Palestinian dead in what witnesses said was a gun battle in and around the town's refugee camp. In protest Qurei has abandoned even the pretence of arranging a meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon while Omar Suleiman, Egypt's intelligence chief and main mediator in the cease-fire talks, stayed home in Cairo. Both know it is futile for the Palestinians to talk truce when Israel is waging war.
But the real nightmare on the Palestinian leadership's horizon is the Israeli leader's disengagement plan. Addressing the Likud Central Committee on Monday Sharon again vowed that unless the PA "changes its path and frees itself from terror" Israel would "undertake political and physical disengagement" from parts of the West Bank. Palestinians believe those parts will be determined by the route of Israel's so-called security wall. If built as they fear it would leave the PA three cantons on about 40-50 per cent of the West Bank, plus a disconnected fourth in Gaza.
Disengagement poses a monumental challenge to Palestinian strategy over the next year. Few believe the leadership and the national movement it represents is in any shape to meet it.
Whatever the show of unity at Fatah anniversaries Arafat presides over a movement in disarray. Under the destructive toll levied by the Intifada and Israel's military onslaught the "nationalism" that once held the various wings of Fatah together is starting to fragment into different and warring class, clan and generational constituencies.
In November gunmen (allegedly from Fatah) tried to assassinate Ghassan Shakaa, the mayor of Nablus. An Arafat loyalist Shakaa has long championed the interests of the business and land-owning classes in Nablus over the poorer, younger Fatah militias who now rule its refugee camps. Most Palestinians saw the hit on Shakaa as an ominous sign of power struggles to come.
There have been others. In December Fatah fighters laid siege to a police station in Khan Yunis demanding jobs and money as the price for any adherence to a cease-fire. On 29 December a mob -- allegedly led by Fatah men -- abducted presidential aide Ramzi Khouri in protest over the PA's failure to do anything about the thousands left homeless following Israel's repeated raids into Rafah. The violence paid dividends. A hastily arranged trip by Qurei to Saudi Arabia this week brought pledges to build 950 homes in the Gaza border town.
Compared with Fatah, Hamas appears a model of political acumen. It has been three months since the Islamist movement claimed a suicide operation inside Israel. Some in Israel's military believe this is due to the "deterrence" of Israel's assassination policies. Others believe it is a strategic decision, with Hamas readying itself for a future cease-fire. But whatever the reason for the lull in military operations, Hamas has moved swiftly to exploit the political vacuum left by Fatah's collapse.
In December a coalition of Hamas and Islamic Jihad won an absolute majority in elections to the student council at Birzeit University, once a bastion of West Bank nationalism. Islamist coalitions now control most of the universities in the occupied territories, together with important professional unions like the Engineers Association in Gaza. Other polls show that were there to be any kind of national elections in the West Bank and Gaza in most PA areas the Islamists would achieve parity with Fatah and, in some, could defeat them.
Nor does Sharon's disengagement pose a threat to the Islamists. A forced Israeli withdrawal from half of the West Bank would give credence to their advocacy of armed resistance and legitimacy to any struggle they waged against the "provisional" Palestinian state it bequeathed. As for Sharon, he has long viewed the PA as little more than a paymaster for its 125,000 employees and welfare provider for its 3.6 million Palestinian denizens.
But for Arafat and Fatah -- and their goal of a negotiated two-state solution based on Israel's full withdrawal from the 1967 occupied territories -- a "disengaged" Palestinian Authority amounts to a monumental national defeat. It might even spell the end of the road, mapped or otherwise.