Challenges from within
Most Palestinians are with Mahmoud Abbas' policies -- it is their execution that is the problem, writes Graham Usher in Ramallah
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Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas sits under a picture of late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, as he talks to the media during a news conference at his office in Gaza. He urged Hamas to hand in its weapons after joining the Palestinian parliament this summer
Last week Mahmoud Abbas did what the world demanded of him. He streamlined the Palestinian Authority's dozen security forces into three (National Security, Intelligence and Police), gave them new heads and "retired" over 1,000 officers, including veteran chieftains like Musa Arafat at National Security in Gaza and Amin Al-Hindi at Intelligence.
The reform is not only an obligation under the roadmap. It is going to be vital if Abbas is to have officers loyal to his new Interior Minister, Nasser Yusuf, as well as jobs for footloose militiamen who, without remuneration, may hawk their wares to others.
The United States welcomed the move. Together with other members of the Middle East Quartet, Washington has long urged "consolidation" and "retirement" as means to purge the Palestinian regime of "Arafatism". Palestinians, too, should have greeted the overhaul: many of the forces are seen as little more than private fiefdoms while commanders like Musa Arafat are bywords for corruption, violence and unaccountable power.
Yet -- as so often with Abbas -- what should have been an example of leadership is becoming seen, publicly, as a challenge to his authority. If this most pivotal of his reforms fails, he will only have himself to blame -- not least for the way the decision was executed.
Most the officers heard of their redundancy or demotion through the Israeli media or via notices pinned to their headquarters. Unsurprisingly, this caused outrage, especially among those who have given decades of their lives to the Palestinian cause. Musa Arafat warned that anger was so great within the ranks there could be an open revolt.
He also warned Abbas not to replace him and the others with "associates" of Yusuf, whom Arafat loathes and on one occasion recently said he would kill. On 21 April hundreds of officers mustered ominously outside Gaza Central Prison in defense of their old commanders rather than the new ones.
Such threats are hardly idle. Whatever the opprobrium by which Arafat is held by the public, he commands thousands of armed men in Gaza who are fiercely loyal to him. Last July it was this force that Musa's nephew, Yasser Arafat, deployed to face down a "security" revolt orchestrated by the current Civil Affairs Minister, Mohamed Dahlan.
That fire was doused with Abbas' accession to leadership. But it could easily rekindle, especially with appointment of Dahlan loyalist, Rashid Abu Shabak, as the new overall head of the powerful Preventive Security service.
Abbas is mindful of sparks. To temper Arafat's rage, Abbas anointed him special security advisor "with the rank of minister". It is not clear whether Arafat accepted the "promotion" or indeed the retirement -- the rumors in Gaza are that he hasn't. It is clear that at a passing out ceremony hosted by Abbas in Gaza on 25 April several of the retired commanders refused to attend, including Arafat and former National Security Force chief in Gaza, Abdel-Razak Majaydeh.
"At least eight of the highest ranking officers announced that they refused to accept the reward from Abu Mazen (Abbas)", a PA "security source" told Israel's Jerusalem Post newspaper on 26 April. "Some of them have been serving for nearly 50 years and they see Abu Mazen's decision to force them into retirement as a direct result of pressure from the Israelis and Americans".
Such minor mutinies are unlikely to lead to an open revolt, let alone a coup d'etat. But they may fuel acts of sabotage where "Abu Mazen's decisions are blocked through the deliberate creation of chaos and lawlessness," says a Fatah leader, who refused to be attributed.
Those straws are already in the wind. In the last month Fatah- affiliated militia have gone on the rampage in Ramallah; stormed Palestinian Legislative Council buildings in Jenin; and wrecked meetings of reformist ministers and deputies in Tulkarm and Nablus.
Ostensibly these were protests by fugitives demanding protection, jobs in the security forces and freedom for prisoners interned in Israeli jails. In fact -- say sources -- they were vandalism in the service of this or that security head allied with elements of Fatah's Central Committee (FCC), chief among them Fatah Chairman, Farouk Qaddumi. He too said the retirement of the officers was a case of Abbas succumbing to "Israeli dictates".
How will Abbas deal with these challenges from within? Most analysts concur that the main thing riding in his favour is public opinion, which supports reform, particularly of the security forces. What he needs to do now, they say, is translate that opinion into a social and political coalition united on his agenda of calm, negotiations and reform. This would not only strengthen him against Israel. It would enable him to face down those who invoke "Israeli dictates" to block change and mask their own failure of leadership.