Until recently, much the same could be said of the Palestinian people, a scattered people united in their grievance. The legacy of Al-Nakba – the catastrophe – is as keenly felt as ever. But the autocratic power structure forged by Yasser Arafat is rapidly unravelling, and internal divisions pose a new threat to the dream of a sovereign Palestinian state on Palestinian soil.

His costume rarely changed over the years – a military jerkin and a chequered keffiyah, its edges carefully folded into a representation of Palestine. But Arafat was many different things to many different people. To those in the West, he was variously a terrorist, a statesman and a Nobel peace laureate. To Palestinians, he has been first and foremost the commander-in-chief, his authority represented by three key roles: chairman of the executive committee of the PLO umbrella group; president of the Palestinian Authority (PA); and head of Fatah, the largest and broadest Palestinian political party, founded several years before the PLO in 1957. Crucially, his authority transcended borders and the private fiefdoms that have become entrenched during the long years of exile and the increasingly militant intifada.

There are contenders for each of his formal roles. Former Palestinian prime minister Mahmoud Abbas has taken temporary charge of the PLO executive committee, while the incumbent premier, Ahmed Qurei, has fought a fierce battle for the title of deputy head of the National Security Council. There has been discussion of a collective leadership, with Abbas as president and Qurei as first minister. In this scenario, other close Arafat aides such as assembly speaker Rawhi Fattouh and Information Minister Yasser Abed-Rabbo would likely be drafted into supporting roles in a broad-based government. Under what passes for a Palestinian constitution, Fattouh temporarily assumes the title of leader of the PA, and an election is due to be held within 60 days of the president’s death. But the security situation may prove a convenient excuse to postpone a vote while the various contenders shore up their power bases.

In truth, few of the old guard are likely to fare well in a leadership election. An opinion poll conducted by the Palestinian Centre for Survey & Research in September found that Qurei and Abbas would gain only 3 per cent and 2 per cent respectively of the popular vote. They are the ‘Tunisians’ – men who accompanied Arafat in exile in the Maghreb in the 1980s, and are seen as outsiders by many in Gaza and the West Bank. And after repeated allegations of corruption within the PA, distrust of politicians is well ingrained. Arafat himself only garnered 35 per cent of votes in the poll.

Of the more charismatic contenders, West Bank Fatah leader Marwan Barghouti and Hamas’ leader in Gaza, Mahmoud Zahhar, both score highly in opinion polls. However, Barghouti has won his popularity at the expense of five consecutive life sentences in an Israeli jail, while Hamas has shown few designs on national government. Still, Hamas’ factional support base has grown considerably during the Al-Aqsa intifada, aided by its policy of charitable works in the Occupied Territories, and there is strong sympathy for leaders who, like Arafat, have earned their reputation through armed struggle.

Proponents of fresh peace talks will argue that, with the ‘key obstacle’ out of the way, there is no excuse now for Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and US President Bush not to return to the negotiating table. They, the Quartet (including the EU, UN and Russia) and intermediaries such as the Egyptian government will fe