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Analysts: Palestinian Political Crisis will Continue without Genuine Change in Government - 2004-07-21

Palestinian President, Yasser Arafat, has been under challenge from Palestinian armed groups demanding political reforms to end the corruption and political cronyism within his administration. Despite the rebellion in the Gaza Strip, Mr. Arafat remains in charge, although some observers believe the crisis is bound to resurface unless he agrees to accept genuine change and allows new faces into the government.

Palestinians often complain of harsh treatment at the hands of the Israeli military. But in the past few days they have made it clear they are also unhappy with life under the Palestinian Authority.

The deep discontent that has long simmered just below the surface broke out into open fury July 16 with a string of kidnappings of top Palestinian police and foreign aid workers.

The crisis prompted the Palestinian Prime Minister, Ahmed Queria, to offer his resignation, only agreeing to withdraw it under pressure from Palestinian President Yasser Arafat.

But in the intervening days chaos ruled in Gaza, as armed groups from Mr. Arafat's own Fatah faction, demanded that he rescind the appointment of his cousin Musa, as the new security head in Gaza.

The groups fought with Palestinian security forces and destroyed government property, forcing Mr. Arafat to replace Musa and move him behind the scenes where he still has the strong support of the Palestinian leader.

The move appears to have reduced tensions for the moment, but some observers believe they will build again if Mr. Arafat does not agree to rid or at least reduce the rampant corruption and political cronyism within his administration.

Among those who appeared to have foreseen the latest events was the U.N. special envoy to the Middle East, Terje Larsen. Earlier this month, he startled many observers when he delivered this uncharacteristically harsh assessment of the Palestinian Authority before the world body.

"The Palestinian Authority, despite consistent promises by its leadership, has made no progress on its core obligation to take immediate action on the ground to end violence and combat terror and to reform and re-organize the Palestinian Authority."

Although he did not mention the Palestinian president by name, Mr. Arafat had no doubt this statement was mainly directed at him. Mr. Arafat, who had often invited Mr. Larsen to his headquarters in the West Bank city of Ramallah, then ordered that the U.N. special envoy be declared persona non-grata and denied any further entry to Palestinian areas.

The Palestinian leader even went as far as calling on the various Palestinian armed groups in the West Bank and Gaza Strip to enforce the decision. But in an ironic twist, some of these same groups, only two weeks later, rebelled against Mr. Arafat, demanding like Mr. Larsen, that the Palestinian leadership agree to political reforms.

Not all observers were surprised by the violence and political unrest.

A leading Israeli expert on Palestinian Affairs says there is nothing new in the anarchy that swept through Gaza.

Professor Dan Shiftan, senior fellow at the national security studies center at Haifa University, says that the Palestinian leadership has always supported the existence of different militia groups to fight Israel.

He says it should therefore not shock anyone when these same groups take the law into their own hands inside the Palestinian areas.

Professor Shiftan says the disorder in Gaza is simply the latest manifestation of, what he terms, a deliberate and self-defeating national strategy followed by the Palestinians for decades.

"The Palestinian leadership encouraged this kind of anarchy in order to avoid responsibility for what they were doing.," he said. "Their national strategy in the struggle against Israel was to create a reality where nobody is responsible, where you can make war against Israel, but you cannot pin down responsibility for it on the Palestinian Authority or any particular part of the Palestinian people.

"It stems from the concept that hurting the Jews is more important than helping the Palestinians," continued Mr. Shiftan. "The idea is that if it is bad for the Jews, in the final analysis it will be good for the Palestinians, even it brings them calamity [in the short term]."

While such criticism from Israeli quarters is not uncommon, Palestinian figures were no less adamant that their society is in the grip of a deep political crisis.

Among them is Sa'id Aburish, the first Palestinian to write a critical biography of Mr. Arafat, whom he blames for the latest turn of events. He told VOA that Mr. Arafat refuses to recognize that he is no longer serving the best interests of the Palestinian people and it is time for him to step down.

"This has been in the making for some time. This is a man who is stubborn, he is not a man of our times," he said. "There was a moment in time when he was a very good nationalist leader, but what the Palestinians need now are two things which are not available to him by nature and this is why he keeps undermining the whole process. The Palestinians need a manager and [a respected] face in the international community. He is not the man for the occasion."

Mr. Aburish's call for Mr. Arafat to make way for a new leader is rare.

A different view comes from a Palestinian political analyst in Gaza, Salah Abdel-Shafi, who witnessed the latest events first hand. He told VOA that there is growing pressure in Palestinian society for change.

"I do not think that anyone from within the establishment or within Fatah is disputing the position of President Arafat," said Mr. Abdel-Shafi. "They are challenging his decisions about corruption issues, appointing people who are, the least to say, are really very much disputed among Palestinians, so it is challenging his decisions, yes."

So what kind of change are the Palestinians asking for?

Mr. Abdel-Shafi believes that the Palestinian Authority must be more reflective of all groups within the society.

He says the Palestinian people and not an elite should be allowed to participate in, what he calls, a real process of democratic decision making.

He says that a first step in this direction would be for Mr. Arafat to allow long-delayed elections to be held for the Palestinian parliament and the Fatah organization. He says that while it is been difficult in recent years to hold elections because of the conflict with Israel, the Palestinian people must retain the right to vote for the representatives they believe will best serve their cause.

If not, he says, the violence and unrest that raged through Gaza this week, are bound to occur again.