In more than 40 years as leader of the Palestinians, Yasser Arafat has seen many challenges. But perhaps none more serious than the one he now faces. This time, it is not from his old foe, the Israelis, but from forces within the Palestinian leader's own political faction.
The trouble had been bubbling under the surface for months. It boiled over in the Gaza Strip several weeks ago in violent protests by Palestinians angered by the appointment of Musa Arafat, a cousin of the Palestinian leader, as chief of security. Although the appointment was later rescinded, the violence continued with kidnappings of both foreigners and Palestinian figures viewed as corrupt. The unrest spread to the West Bank in a demonstration of the Palestinian public's anger at what they see as a leadership that is both inept and corrupt.
Such charges have been leveled before, but Yasser Arafat has managed to remain above the turmoil. That is no longer the case. For the first time since the Palestinian Authority was established in 1994, rage against corrupt leadership has the backing of the most powerful militia in Gaza, the al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades which is linked to Yasser Arafat's own Fatah movement and should be under his control.
Some analysts believe al Aqsa is now positioning itself to become not just an armed militia, but a political force in its own right and one that does not have to answer necessarily to Yasser Arafat. The catalyst for this move, they believe, was the announcement by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon that Israel would withdraw completely from the Gaza Strip by the end of 2005. The question is, once the Israelis go, who will fill the power vacuum.
Jonathan Halevi of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs says al Aqsa is positioning itself to directly challenge Yasser Arafat himself.
"They want to dominate the Palestinian Authority by kicking out the old guard who is [are] considered to be corrupted and for them they see it [the Israeli withdrawal] as a golden opportunity," he said. "The struggle over the Palestinian Authority, after the disengagement was declared, has begun."
The Palestinian Authority has maintained that the unrest in Gaza is the result of the Israeli occupation and not an outpouring of public outrage at corruption and cronyism within the organization.
"The idea of having a very well functioning government under the Israeli occupation that is basically aimed at destroying us and negating our national existence is a fantasy," said Nasser al Kidwa, the Palestinian envoy to the United Nations and a nephew of Yasser Arafat.
Other Palestinians see the problem very differently and with Yasser Arafat at the heart of it. They believe that changes in the political leadership are critically important. Mahdi Abdul Hadi is the founder of the Palestinian Academic Society for the Study of International Affairs in Jerusalem. He believes the most urgent need is for elections that would give Palestinians a real chance to clean house and get rid of those tainted with corruption. But, he says, as long as Yasser Arafat is in office that is not likely to happen.
"Elections are needed and Arafat will continue to play the game of in and out, postponing it," said Mr. Hadi. "He's a master of tactics and by the end of the day the agenda is personal survival."
Mr. Abdel Hadi says that, while the discontent among Palestinians is aimed at their leadership, it does not extend far enough to pose a serious threat to Mr. Arafat. He says he is too much a symbol of the Palestinian people, their hopes and aspirations. And, while he believes it would be better for the Palestinians if their leader himself would yield some of his authority in some power sharing arrangement, he does not see that ever happening.
"I cannot see Mr. Arafat another Mandela. I cannot see Mr. Arafat another Ghandi. He is there and he will not give it up," continued Mr. Hadi. "And he will not change his status quo and he will struggle and fight for the last drop of blood in his body to maintain his seat of power."
Mr. Abdel Hadi is not alone in seeing Mr. Arafat weathering yet another storm. On Tuesday, Israel's chief of intelligence, Major General Aharon Ze'evi Farkash predicted that the latest challenges will not last. General Farkash told the Israeli parliament Mr. Arafat has survived the crisis and that the political moves against him have failed.