YASSER Arafat’s Palestinian Authority was thrown into crisis last weekend.
Israel’s prime minister, Ariel Sharon, is pursuing a policy of unilateral withdrawal which has left the Gaza Strip cut off for months.
But Israel will still control Gaza’s borders, trade and jobs. There are no agreements about trade or employment.
So Israel’s policy amounts to imprisoning thousands of Palestinians and starving them into submission.
Gaza’s economy has been described as “one of the worst in modern history” by the World Bank. Unemployment in Gaza is already running at around 70 percent, bringing devastating poverty.
Israeli soldiers have carried out major military incursions in the Palestinian refugee camps along the Palestine-Egypt border.
This has created a big crisis for the Palestinian militants who are hopelessly outgunned by Israel’s massive military power.
The Palestinian Authority barely exists on the ground, and where it does it is full of corruption and nepotism. This is provoking anger from ordinary Palestinians.
The Palestinian Authority has all but lost control over the Gaza Strip, which used to be a stronghold. Gaza was where Arafat stationed his strongest security units.
The Palestinian Authority is losing its grip, not only over the Islamic militants in groups like Hamas, but also over its own ranks— the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, for example.
Israel is demanding that the Palestinian Authority moves against militants and pacifies Gaza as the price of reopening negotiations.
Over the weekend the prime minister of the Palestinian Authority tried to resign.
Ahmed Qurei wanted to get out because he is trapped— caught between the demands of Israel and the militancy of the Palestinians.
Qurei was prepared to try and implement some of Israel’s demands but knows that this strategy risks losing support amongst ordinary Palestinians.
Yasser Arafat rejected Qurei’s resignation because he himself wants to follow the same strategy of implementing Israel’s demands, albeit belatedly.
Arafat wanted to make his close relative, Musa Arafat, the head of security. Musa is widely disliked and mistrusted because he was the head of a security organisation that interrogated opposition activists and held them for months without trial.
Arafat’s attempt to impose his cousin led to big demonstrations staged by members of Arafat’s own organisation.
The crowds marched to the refugee camps chanting, “Down with Musa! Yes to reform!” and burnt down security buildings.
The protests forced Arafat to back down from appointing Musa as head of security.
Yasser Arafat still commands tremendous popularity among Palestinians, but he also has a long history of misjudging how deep the anger against him is.
Israel needs the help of serious forces inside Gaza if it is to crush Palestinian resistance.
The Gaza Strip is the most densely populated area on earth. Huge numbers of people there are armed.
When Israel sends tanks and armoured cars into Gaza they get blown up.
Israel has assassinated the leaders of Hamas, like Sheikh Yassin.
If the Palestinian Authority is undermined it will have no one to negotiate with, nobody who can hold back the militants.
It is a hugely risky strategy for Israel.
That’s why James Wolfensohn, president of the World Bank, warned recently that the “deep economic crisis” in Palestinian areas is “undermining the credibility of the Palestinian Authority, increasing the popular appeal of militant factions, and threatening Israel’s security.”
The World Bank reported, “Unless today’s impasse is broken soon, the Palestinian Authority could melt away, leaving Israel with a poor, embittered neighbour with whom dialogue could be much more difficult.”
The last time Ariel Sharon seriously moved to try and isolate Arafat was in March 2002.
Israel’s actions provoked huge demonstrations across the Middle East—100,000 in Yemen, 1.5 million in Morocco, 1 million in Sudan and even 20,000 in Kuwait.
And all this happened before the Iraq war deepened anger across the area.
Sharon’s policy of unilateral disengagement is a policy of crushing Gaza economically.
But the Israelis know they can’t contain Gaza forever.
There is a crisis for Arafat, a crisis for Sharon, and a growing crisis for the militant Palestinians about what they should do next.
Gaza is a timebomb on Israel’s doorstep.
Israel has no mechanism to release the pressure and is terrified resistance will spill over to the rest of the Middle East.