Palestine: Loss of Authority

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Yasser Arafat faces considerable opposition from erstwhile supporters.

Hamas's suicide bomb attacks on Jerusalem and Haifa in early December had two targets. The first and dearest target was Israel. Hamas had sworn to revenge the Israeli assassination of one its leading activists. However, the second, indirect target was Yasser Arafat and the Palestinian Authority. Hamas's actions sent a clear message to the Palestinian leadership - the armed struggle takes priority over US-sponsored peace deals. The sight of Palestinian security forces battling with crowds of young activists outside the house of Hamas's founder, Sheikh Yassin, exposed the growing political contradictions within the Occupied Territories to the outside world.

The problem for Arafat is that it is not simply the Islamists who now oppose halting the armed struggle. He also faces significant opposition from within the ranks of his own organisation, Fatah, and from the left nationalists such as the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP). Moreover, Palestinian public opinion overwhelmingly supports the tactic of suicide bombings and has no confidence in a negotiated settlement.

Over the past 14 years Hamas has grown into one of the most powerful forces in Palestinian political life. Hamas's success is based on a strategy which combines charitable and social work in the Occupied Territories with armed actions against Israeli targets. During the early 1980s the Israelis targeted nationalist and left wing political activists but left the Islamist activists running welfare projects alone. However, the outbreak of the intifada in 1987 radicalised a whole generation of Islamists. These activists began to play a leading role in resistance to the Israeli occupation.

Despite this, Hamas remained a relatively marginal force in Palestinian politics until the late 1990s. In 1996 only 15 percent of Palestinians supported the Islamists. The failure of the Oslo peace process, the bankruptcy of the Palestinian Authority (PA) and increasing Israeli repression have changed all that. According to Palestinian researcher Khalil Shikaki, the Islamists can now count on the support of around 30 percent of Palestinians. For him, the new intifada has played a crucial role in the success of the Islamists: 'By July 2001 the Islamists increased their support by 60 percent, rising to 27 percent. The intifada brought about the first significant change in the domestic balance of power since 1995, with more and more people shifting loyalty from the nationalists to the Islamists.'

The development of the intifada over the past year has seemed to favour the two wings of Hamas's strategy. The growing militarisation of the intifada, in response to Israeli escalation, has given legitimacy to the tactic of suicide bombings. It is not surprising that people living under siege, whose homes are being bombed from Apache helicopters and whose children are strafed by F-16 fighter jets on the way to school, should cheer any retaliation which relieves their sense of powerlessness. At the same time the disintegration of Palestinian society, as a result of the economic blockade, has given renewed importance to Hamas's charitable projects.

Radical regimes

Islamic Jihad, like Hamas, has its origins in the revival of Islamist organisations across the Middle East during the late 1970s. However, unlike Hamas, Islamic Jihad has always been an armed movement. Many of the organisation's leading members were students in Egypt during the late 1970s, and returned to Palestine inspired by the example of the radical Islamists who assassinated Egyptian president Anwar Sadat. The collapse of the peace process has brought a new audience for Islamic Jihad, which in a climate where there appears to be no alternative to the armed struggle, and in particular the 'martyrdom operations' of the suicide bombers, can point to a long history of resistance to the occupation.

The assassination of the Israeli minister of tourism catapulted the PFLP back into the international spotlight for the first time in a generation. The intifada, as well as benefiting the Islamists, appeared also to be setting the stage for a revival of the Palestinian left. In reality the PFLP, despite the impact of its high profile assassination of Ze'evi, is still a relatively marginal force in Palestinian politics.

The PFLP was founded in the aftermath of the Six Day War in 1967. Israel's crushing defeat of Egypt, then the strongest and most independent of the Arab states, showed clearly the limits of the kind of national liberation promised by Gamal Abdul Nasser. The defeat of 1967 was critical to the development of the mainstream Palestinian movement, in particular pushing Fatah to the conclusion that the Palestinians could not rely on Arab armies to liberate their lost land. The PFLP took this logic a step further, arguing that the majority of the Arab regimes were incapable of leading the struggle for liberation because they were so closely tied to imperialism. However, the organisation also argued that in some circumstances Palestinian nationalists should support 'radical' regimes. Chief among these radical states was the Soviet Union and its allies in the Middle East, in particular Syria.

During the 1990s. PFLP activists emerged in the Occupied Territories as critics of the peace process, in alliance with the Islamists and the radicals within Fatah. As a result the PFLP has gained a new audience with the collapse of the peace process and the growing disillusionment with the Palestinian Authority. Despite this, however, until the Israelis assassinated the PFLP's leader, Abu Ali Mustafa, the organisation had not played a distinct role in the leadership of the intifada.

Until the late 1980s the political leadership of the mainstream Palestinian nationalist movement, Fatah, always lay with the movement's founders in exile. The outbreak of the intifada in 1987 radically shifted the balance of power within the organisation and provided a space for the development of a new layer of leaders within the Occupied Territories.

The 1990s saw the development of two contradictory trends within Fatah. Firstly, the old leadership returned from exile and set about the process of building the institutions of a Palestinian state. The people they chose to fill the ranks of the police and security forces included large numbers of Fatah activists who had played a leading role in the first intifada. However, as Israeli provocations increased, the frustration of Fatah members grew. The peace deals had always given priority to Israeli security concerns, and by the end of the 1990s. this meant Palestinian police enforcing Israeli demands on an increasingly hostile Palestinian population.

These contradictions exploded into the open with the outbreak of the second intifada. However, in reality the younger leadership of Fatah had begun to rebuild their activist base, the tanzim, over the previous few years. The period 1994-99 saw 122 Fatah conferences organised in the Occupied Territories, at which around 85,000 Fatah activists elected 2,500 local leaders. The key figure in this process of democratisation was Marwan Barghouti, the head of Fatah's Higher Council in the West Bank. Graham Usher is a journalist specialising in Palestinian politics. He explained in a recent article how during the 1990s. 'it tended to be Fatah tanzim deputies who led the crusade against the general corruption, mismanagement and lawlessness of the PA's governance.' It is this activist base which leaders like Barghouti have mobilised to organise the second intifada.

It is precisely this layer of local activists who, even more than Hamas or the PFLP, represent the most obvious internal challenge to Arafat's leadership. This is why dozens of Fatah's local activists have been arrested in Arafat's clampdown on the opposition. As Khalil Shikaki explains, Arafat's relationship to this 'Young Guard' of Fatah activists limits his room for manoeuvre: 'If Arafat acts now against the Islamists and the Young Guard he risks, if successful, being seen by the Palestinians as an Israeli lackey.'

Failure to act also threatens Arafat's survival. In December the Israeli cabinet voted through a resolution describing the PA as a 'terrorist supporting entity'. This was followed by a European Union decision to classify Hamas as a terrorist organisation. The fate of Afghanistan shows the potential consequences for states which fail to toe the line in the 'war on terrorism'.