Post-Arafat scene

More than a week after the sudden passing away of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, we have the opportunity to evaluate the Palestinian scene.
The political situation has suddenly become very fluid. Opportunities for serious progress in the Palestinian quest for statehood have become more evident. Arafat’s natural death (as far as we know) might have done a lot to move forward the Palestinian cause, provided the new leadership can take advantage of this new prospect.

Politically, the new leadership proved up to the challenge through the smooth transfer of power within the Palestinian National Authority, the PLO and Fateh. Adherence to the Basic Law (the interim constitution) of the PNA and the internal guidelines of the Fateh movement has proved to be remarkable in efficiency and effectiveness.

Arafat’s absence has given more strength to institutions and the democratic processes. But the problem that the new leadership faces now is how to balance the need to stay the institutional course with actions that please some of the previously disenfranchised groups.

The shootings in Gaza in the mourning tent sent a bad signal about how some groups are trying to draw attention to their cause. If the new leadership allows this form of message delivery to rule, it will be blackmailed all the time. On the other hand, the Palestinian leadership must be careful how it understands some of the underlying causes that have been simmering for a long time.

While much of the debate today is taking place within the mainstream Fateh movement, the role of the Islamic groups must not be minimised. One of the most important statements made this week was the call by Hamas and Islamic Jihad that the legislative and municipal elections take place as soon as possible. While this call was later followed by a negative one regarding the Islamic groups’ participation in the upcoming presidential elections, the interest that the Islamic groups have shown in the two other national elections should be studied very closely. For, what these statements allude to is a major shift in the thinking of these radical groups.

While on the surface they are still talking about the importance of resistance, these statements indicate an important shift towards more political activities. If this thinking persists, then we are witnessing the beginning of the end of the militarisation of the Intifada.

The end of the violent side of the Intifada has been coming for some time. The Egyptian-sponsored talks during the past year with all the Palestinian factions have been preparing the situation for a public declaration of some sort in which Palestinian armed groups will declare a ceasefire. The absence of some of the radical Hamas leaders and the emergence of Mahmoud Zahhar as a key Hamas figure is certainly encouraging in this regard.

Even before Arafat’s death, Hamas has been very actively participating in the drafting of the new municipal election law. Hamas actively participated in the election registration drive and has been poised to participate in the municipal elections that were due to begin on city-by-city basis (starting with Jericho) in early January. Abbas’ talks in Gaza last week were focused specifically on this issue and reports coming out of Gaza indicate that he has made some headway in this regard, with a possible ceasefire agreement with the Islamic groups quite near.

The possibility of a new Palestinian hudna should not be interpreted as a sign of weakness. Palestinian cessation of armed attacks against Israelis will not succeed if this decision is not matched with at least an Israeli commitment to stop the assassination campaign against Palestinian leaders. The international community, especially the US, must find a way to convince Israel not to attempt to use what Israel calls “targeted killings”.

As Palestinians prepare for the upcoming presidential elections, many other areas need to be addressed. Not only should Palestinians from East Jerusalem be allowed to vote, as they did in 1996, but the situation in Palestinian areas must be changed to the better. The closure which has been imposed for nearly four years must immediately be rescinded and the many checkposts erected between cities must be removed.

Israel is also expected to strengthen the new Palestinian leadership by way of releasing political prisoners, transferring all PNA money that were taken during the past four years from workers and customs, and generally removing the repressive atmosphere that has been the characteristic of the last years.

Obviously, Palestinians have many internal problems solving that is necessary. They must deal with internal issues that will lead to unifying the candidate for president, resolve differences within the Palestinian security forces and the young leadership of Fateh, as well as reach a solid hudna agreement with the Islamists.

The public is looking to the new leadership to remove some of the well-known unethical figures of the past regime and begin investigating some of the more obvious cases of financial and administrative corruption. The leader that will be able to pull all of the above before Jan. 9 will certainly deserve the support of the Palestinian public.