Beginning in mid-July, the streets of Gaza and West Bank cities have been the scene of what some have called the "intra-fada," acts against the Palestinian Authority's perceived corruption and President Arafat's reluctance to ease his grip on power.
Jerusalem-based reporter Ross Dunn explains what happened in Gaza when that discontent reached a flash point on July 16. "The trouble began with a series of kidnappings on the same day starting with the head of the police and moving to another senior police official. And then, the kidnapping of people working for non-governmental organizations trying to help the Palestinians."
A group calling itself the Jenin Brigades claimed responsibility, demanding the removal of the kidnapped police chief Ghazi al-Jibali because of alleged embezzlement and corruption. The next day, President Arafat responded by naming another to that post. Mr. Arafat also announced that he was replacing the P.A.'s national security chief, Abdel Razzak al-Majeida, with his cousin Moussa Arafat, a decision later rescinded. That appointment sent tempers boiling among members of Fatah, the political organization Yasser Arafat created decades ago. Fatah took to the streets, and protestors attacked Palestinian Authority offices in several locations. That same day, Prime Minister Ahmed Queria submitted his resignation in protest of what he called "a state of chaos." Mr. Arafat refused to accept his resignation.
While malfeasance was indeed a major issue for the Fatah dissidents, al-Hayat Washington correspondent Salameh Nematt says there also were strong internal dynamics in play. "What we have" he says "is a power struggle between different factions within Fatah, the mainstream movement in the Palestinian Authority politicians jockeying for position and Arafat trying to control the security establishment."
David Makovsky, with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, says Fatah's internal struggles reflect differences of age and priorities. He tells VOA "The older generation is still focused more on the refugee issue, and issues that are really unrelated to the plight of local Palestinians who were born and bred in Gaza and the West Bank and are chafing under the fact that Arafat's old guard is not making room for the new guard."
The struggle for Palestinian leadership in Gaza goes beyond factions within Fatah. As al-Hayat correspondent Salameh Nematt notes, Hamas is also vying for attention and power. Politically, they positioned themselves to weaken Arafat and to gain more credibility as his expense," adding "Hamas is building schools and hospitals, a kind of social security network for the Palestinians."
Many analysts believe that Hamas wants to gain control of Gaza if and when Israel withdraws, setting itself up as a rival administrative structure to the P.A.
On July 27, President Arafat moved to quell mounting Palestinian dissent by announcing that he and Prime Minister Queria had reached agreement on restructuring and reducing the security services to three - the police, the Interior Ministry, and intelligence. Mr. Queria would get control of the police, and President Arafat announced that he would move to define lines of authority over all security functions. That prompted Ahmed Queria to withdraw his resignation in a public display of solidarity with Yasser Arafat.
Former U-S Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Alan Kieswetter is one of many observers deeply skeptical of the deal, asserting "Arafat made the very smallest possible concession. There's a repeated history here of his not wanting to give up his authority."
Nadia Hijab, at the Washington-based Palestine Center, says the Arafat-Queria settlement is cosmetic and does not substantively reform the P.A. She adds this internal turmoil is a distraction from the Palestinians' most important task. "Let's reframe the agenda from a discussion about how we can reorganize the security forces" she says "to an agenda that says 'we want our freedom now!'"
Despite the Arafat-Queria settlement, dissident Fatah factions and others continue to demand major reforms in the P.A. Former P.A. official Mohammed Dahlan has stepped up his calls for the Palestinian leader to share power and rid the P.A. of corruption and cronyism. Mr. Dahlan warns he will fill the streets with angry protestors if his demands are not soon met, though he stops short of calling for Yasser Arafat to step down.
History has shown time and again that the Palestinian leader weathers storms both internal and external with his power and prestige intact. Because of that,he has had little incentive to change the status quo. A number of observers say that a new direction for the P.A. may have to await new leadership.