TEL AVIV — As Gaza teetered on the brink of chaos this week, with signs that the West Bank might follow, Israelis were anxiously peering through the fog to try and understand what lay ahead in the territory from which Israel has vowed to withdraw in the coming months.
Gaza erupted into violence last Friday, beginning with a series of kidnappings of Palestinian security officials and foreign aid workers, followed by two days of rioting and armed attacks on Palestinian Authority security headquarters in several cities. The fighting appeared to pit Arafat loyalists and P.A. officials against factions of Arafat’s Fatah movement that oppose his leadership, according to Israeli intelligence officials and foreign observers alike.
On Tuesday the violence moved north into the West Bank city of Ramallah, where a Palestinian politician known as a critic of Arafat, Nabil Amr, was shot and wounded in his home.
Many observers saw the events as the opening move in a bid for power by Mohammed Dahlan, Arafat’s former Gaza security chief, who is viewed by Israel, Egypt and others as a key to stability in Gaza after an Israeli withdrawal.
For Israelis, the drama raised a welter of mixed emotions. Much of Israel views Arafat with loathing, and the prospect of his weakening or even overthrow was seen as hopeful. But the hope was mixed with foreboding that Arafat would be replaced not by a responsible leadership but by chaos.
“Events in the Gaza Strip prove that there is no one to talk to,” Prime Minister Sharon said Sunday at the start of his weekly Cabinet meeting.
The unrest erupted as Arafat prepared to implement a series of reforms in his security apparatus, ahead of a July 20 deadline laid down by Egyptian mediators. The reforms, aimed ostensibly at streamlining the myriad security forces under Arafat’s direct control, appeared instead to add layers of complexity and to tighten Arafat’s grip.
Most controversially, Arafat named a nephew, Moussa Arafat, to the post of commander of general security services in Gaza. The appointment brought thousands into the streets of Gaza in protest.
On Monday, only two days after the appointment was announced, Arafat backtracked and brought back the previous commander, Abdel-Razek al-Majaideh, in the newly created post of general security chief for Gaza and the West Bank, ostensibly over Moussa, who spent most of his 48 hours as commander under siege in his office.
The second reshuffling came in a tense meeting in Arafat’s run-down headquarters in Ramallah, where the P.A. leadership declared a state of emergency in Gaza — a futile step, as it seemed to have no real power to implement it.
In the midst of the chaos, Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qurei offered his resignation, which Arafat rejected immediately. Following a lengthy standoff, Qurei agreed on Tuesday to stay on as a self-declared “caretaker” prime minister, but announced that he stay on would only if Arafat handed over control over the security apparatus, as the Egyptians have demanded. Arafat showed no signs of complying.
The head of research in Israel’s Military Intelligence branch, Brigadier General Yossi Kuperwasser, told the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee on Monday that the riots were a sign that Palestinians saw Arafat as weakened by the Egyptian and American demands for reform. He said the events were part of a power struggle between Arafat and Dahlan and showed that Arafat was trying to buy time.
Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz, addressing the committee after Kuperwasser, said that parts of the Palestinian leadership were fed up with Arafat’s corruption. He said it was still too soon to tell what would happen in the unrest: “Maybe it will intensify; but maybe it will fade. It is difficult to predict Arafat’s moves.” However, he added that the events in Gaza were not a sign of civil war.
Dahlan has not held an official position since the resignation last September of the former P.A. prime minister, Mahmoud Abbas. After the departure of Abbas, who was openly embittered by Arafat’s refusal to cede power as well as Israel’s reluctance to back him, Dahlan spent the better part of a year outside the region, mostly in London. Since returning this spring, he has been building a new power base, which is apparently the main factor behind the current wave of protest.
But according to some Palestinian observers, the latest events should be seen through a wider lens. Ramallah pollster Khalil Shikaki, the most respected Palestinian opinion researcher, argues that the Intifada broke out in 2000 not only because of the failure of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, but also because a younger generation of Palestinian leaders felt excluded from power during the Oslo process of the 1990s. The 1993 Israeli-Palestinian accords created a nascent Palestinian power structure and handed it to Arafat. Arafat, coming from Tunis with his fellow exiles in 1994 and installing them in all key positions, left little for Marwan Barghouti and grass-roots leaders who had emerged during the first intifada in the 1980s and expected to have a role in the emerging Palestinian institutions that they saw resulting from their struggles.
In Shikaki’s view, widely shared by Palestinian intellectuals and reformers, P.A. corruption and Arafat’s failure to create an orderly, transparent government helped to fuel the rage that finally erupted in September 2000.
The events of the past three-and-a-half years, including the de-facto reoccupation of most of the West Bank and frequent Israeli army incursions into Gaza, did little to assuage the anger and frustration of what Shikaki called “the young guard.” The terrible economic conditions of the Palestinian population — especially in Gaza, where 60% of the people live below the international poverty line of $2 a day per capita — and the absolute lack of hope for change produced dozens of would-be suicide bombers, as well as thousands of people disillusioned with Arafat and with the rest of the current Palestinian national leadership.
Many Israelis acknowledge that a key motive behind Israel’s acceptance of the Oslo process, as proclaimed by the late prime minister Yitzhak Rabin, revolved around the notion that it would empower the Palestinians to fight terror on Israel’s behalf — precisely because they were not expected to develop the open, transparent structures of a democratic state. In Rabin’s famous phrase, Arafat and his followers were expected to deal with terrorists “with no supreme court and no B’Tselem,” referring to a well-known Israeli human rights organization. Rabin and his successors reveled frankly in Arafat’s lack of intention to create real national institutions. Now, in the face of the ensuing shambles, Sharon is citing the same situation as a reason that Israel must get of Gaza unilaterally.