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Arafat Or Abbas: Who's In Charge?

by Ferry Biedermann

New Palestinian Leadership May Dim Hopes for Peace
(IPS) RAMALLAH -- One of the senior commanders of the militant Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades stares out of the window of his office in a ministry building of the Palestinian Authority, where he works.

The view is of a valley that leads to Sinjel, his village.

Just as he is explaining his pessimism about the current peace moves, his phone rings. "My little daughter," he says, covering the mouthpiece, "because of the closures I have not been able to see her for four days."

The commander who belittles his influence over his own militants -- "know their thinking but they hardly really listen to me" -- is much more pessimistic than he was a couple of months ago. Earlier in the year he was still working hard to get his people as well as the fundamentalists of Hamas and Islamic Jihad to accept a ceasefire.

Now all three groups vie for which can do the most damage to the new Palestinian Prime Minister who has staked his future on the fledgling diplomatic process.

In the three weeks since the appointment of Mahmoud Abbas, better known by his nom de guerre Abu Mazen, militants have carried out six suicide bombings compared to five in the previous six months.

Of course Abbas' appointment also marked the presentation of the latest international peace initiative, the so-called road map.

"Israel has done nothing from its side to implement the measures to improve the lives of our people that the road map is calling for," says the commander. The continued hardship makes it tough for people like him who do want to give the diplomatic process a chance to convince the militants to lay down their arms, he says.

There is a particular sense of "frustration" this time on the Palestinian side, says the commander. The Palestinians feel that they have done everything in their power to make the road map succeed.

They implemented some of its provisions even before the plan was formally represented. He refers to the appointment of a Prime Minister and the accompanying political reforms.

Israel from its side has in fact rejected the road map, claims the commander, and it is this that has led to the latest upsurge in Palestinian attacks. He is vague, though, about the motivation of the militants to escalate their attacks if Israel, as he says, has already rejected the road map anyway.

The involvement of the Al-Aqsa Brigades, which are linked to the Fatah movement of both Arafat and Abbas, in the latest violence, is also remarkable. Other than Hamas and Jihad, this group hardly opposes the new Prime Minister on personal or political grounds. "We have to defend ourselves," the commander explains. He refers to the growing popularity of Hamas and Jihad with every suicide bombing. Fatah has lost a lot of ground to these fundamentalist groups over the last couple of years.

The internal popularity stakes play a major role in the dynamics of violence from the Palestinian side, apart form the Israeli actions. And the new Prime Minister enjoys very little support among the people, it seems, according to recent polls.

Palestinian analysts say that this may be another reason for the Brigades to join in the violence at this point. They feel they cannot count on Abbas to safeguard their interests so they have to take care of themselves.

It certainly is an impediment to the Palestinian Authority (PA) cracking down on militants, says Ahmad Qatamish, an analyst in Ramallah who is close to the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. He believes that any serious steps taken against Hamas by Abbas could lead to a Palestinian civil war.

"It is true that Hamas has always said that it wants to avoid that," says Qatamish. "But that was when Arafat was in charge. They don't have any respect for Abu Mazen. They look at his popularity compared to theirs and say that he is a nobody."

Arafat himself is clearly not interested at the moment in reining in the violence, says Qatamish. "Why should he? The Israelis humiliated him, locked him into two rooms in his headquarters. Besides, they are trying to have him replaced by Abu Mazen; it is not in his interest to do anything at the moment."

Azzam Al-Ahmad, a minister in Abbas' new cabinet who is said to be close to Arafat, disagrees. "Arafat and Abu Mazen agree on everything. Arafat accepted the road map even before Abu Mazen did."

According to Al-Ahmad, there is no issue of competition between the two men. "Everybody knows that Arafat is still in charge of negotiations. He is the chairman of the PLO, Abu Mazen still only the secretary general. It's the PLO that counts, not the Palestinian Authority."

The real obstacle to the PA acting against the militants is not Abbas' perceived lack of popularity, claims Al-Ahmad. "The Israelis destroyed our security services and they are occupying our cities, how can we operate under those circumstances?"

Reports that the Israelis are now leaking from last weekend's meeting between Abbas and Prime Minister Sharon suggest though that Israel offered to withdraw from any city where the Palestinians were able to take over security.

Abbas is said to have rejected that offer because Sharon refused to accept the road map with its political provisions such as a freeze on Israeli settlements in the Palestinian territories.

This suggests that during more than two and a half years of violence and countless peace plans, of which the road map is the latest, the positions have not changed at all.

The Israelis still demand that all violence ends before any political progress can be made while the Palestinians demand political progress before they reduce their violence. Meanwhile, the Israeli violence continues unabated.

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Albion Monitor May 22, 2003 (

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