Power struggle over security control resurfaces

The Palestinian leadership has been thrown into crisis once more over the perennial question of controlling the security forces in Gaza and the West Bank. Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat came close to losing his second prime minister in nine months over the issue, although Ahmed Qurei later relented and agreed to continue in the post. And the weakness of the security apparatus in the Occupied Territories was made stark by increasing lawlessness on the streets.

The latest stand-off pitted Arafat not only against Qurei but against members of the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, the militant affiliate of the veteran leader’s Fatah movement. Precipitating the week’s events was the kidnapping in Gaza of two Palestinian officials and four French aid workers on 16 July by Al-Aqsa members, in protest at perceived corruption in the Palestinian Authority (PA). The hostages were released shortly afterwards. However, the incident prompted the anomalous response by Arafat of appointing a close relative, Moussa Arafat, to overall charge of the security forces in place of Abdel Razek al-Majeida.

Unsurprisingly, Al-Aqsa and its supporters were unsatisfied with the appointment of a man accused of corruption and cruelty. Clashes broke out between militants and the security forces, and Qurei tendered his resignation, expressing frustration at the constraints placed on his leadership. Within two days, the game of musical chairs had come full circle and both Qurei and Al-Majeida were back in their jobs.

But the violence went on. Nabil Amr, a member of the Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC – parliament) and information minister under former prime minister Mahmoud Abbas, was shot and injured in Ramallah, where Arafat is based, on 20 July. Amr has been vocal in criticising corruption within the PA. The following day, PA official Fadel al-Shuli was kidnapped in Nablus. And the political wrangling continued on 21 July as parliament adopted by an overwhelming majority a resolution calling for the dissolution of Qurei’s cabinet, accusing the government of ‘failing to fulfil its responsibility to control the domestic situation and improve the security of its people’.

The spate of unrest reflects various faultlines in the fraught world of Palestinian politics. Arafat was pressured by the Americans into relinquishing some power to a prime minister in 2003 as a condition for the peace process progressing, since Washington and Tel Aviv refused to negotiate with him. But both Abbas and Qurei have clashed with the PA president over their respective spheres of influence, centring around control over the security services, which Arafat regards as a crucial plank of his power base. Al-Majeida is himself an Arafat loyalist and Abbas’ doomed attempt to wrest control to Minister of State for Security Affairs Mohammed Dahlan was crucial to the downfall of his administration.

Politicians are also split over how to react to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s plan for unilateral disengagement from the Gaza Strip, with some favouring co-operation with the Israelis and others preaching continued resistance. Uprising by the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade reflects a popular dissatisfaction with the PA. The widely held view of the leadership as corrupt creates increasing anger as Israeli incursions and barricades worsen the quality of life for ordinary Palestinians.

Israel’s security wall around the West Bank promises to make life even worse for those living in the territory. Palestinians scored a moral victory on 20 July when the UN General Assembly approved by 150 votes to six – with the US among the dissenters – a motion calling for stretches of the barrier to be dismantled, following a ruling by the International Court of Justice in early July that Palestinian land was being illegally annexed. However, the General Assembly has no tool