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July 27, 2004

Conflict Spreads Within Fatah

by Jim Lobe

RAMALLAH - A bullet hole in the curtain of the television room at Palestinian opposition figure Nabil Amr's luxurious villa still attests to the shooting last Wednesday in which he was heavily wounded. Amr survived and is in hospital in Jordan, but Palestinian politics may be in a terminal crisis.

"They were shooting to kill, this was to be a political murder," says Amr's eldest son Tarek in a quiet but outraged voice. "It is the most serious incident so far involving a senior opposition figure."

Earlier cases were mainly confined to intimidation through beatings and shots fired from afar, says Tarek. Nabil Amr's home was fired upon two years ago as well. The deputy governor of Nablus was kidnapped for a short while last week.

The violent incidents in the West Bank now seem to be an extension of the recent unrest in Gaza. The power struggle there in the run-up to the expected Israeli withdrawal has precipitated a political crisis in Ramallah with the resignation move of Palestinian Authority (PA) Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia and demands for reform of the PA. Yasser Arafat is being asked to relinquish some of his powers.

Arafat has offered to transfer effective power over the security services to Qureia, a key demand of the latter if he is to stay on. This would be done by appointing an interior minister of Qureia's choice.

Over the weekend violent protests continued in the Gaza strip. Protesters burnt down a police station and briefly occupied a government building. The protests seem to be targeted at corruption and cronyism within the Palestinian Authority.

In Gaza in particular there have been demands for a restructuring of the security services. But many Palestinian analysts say rival factions in Yasser Arafat's ruling Fatah movement are manipulating these complaints for their own purpose.

Nabil Amr, member of parliament, is a high-profile critic of Arafat and a vocal advocate of reform. He quit as minister for parliamentary affairs in Arafat's cabinet more than two years ago. He owns the newspaper Al Hayat Al-Yadida, the "new life."

Amr's son Tarek says some people had begun to think that his father was setting himself up as an alternative to Yasser Arafat. "But that is not true, my father wants reforms under Arafat."

He is vague on the reforms his father is demanding. "In general he wants the rule of law to be applied," he says. His brother-in-law Iyad Amr steps in to say, "Nabil Amr wants the seat of power to be the democratically elected parliament and not a collection of cronies."

People close to Arafat scoff at such notions. "Nabil Amr and other so-called opposition figures just want a bigger piece of the cake," says Bassam Abu Sharif, an advisor to Arafat and an old ally. His house is a lot simpler than Amr's and his face and body bear the scars of the long struggle he has waged alongside Arafat.

Abu Sharif has no doubt that Arafat will survive this crisis and come out on top, but he says he too is urging reforms. In particular he wants to reduce the influence of the Fatah movement.

"Palestine is not Fatah-land, Arafat should stop satisfying the demands of Fatah members," he says. He advocates a new cabinet headed by Qureia with ministers selected on "professional" merit.

But Arafat will stay firmly in control, even of the security services, says Abu Sharif. "He will of course remain chairman of the National Security Council." The Council is the final arbiter in security matters and is packed with Arafat loyalists. Abu Sharif clearly considers the whole crisis a storm in a teacup. "What crisis?" he asks.

The shooting of Nabil Amr is, he says, either the handiwork of the Israelis or of some people in Fatah who want to "create chaos."

Jabr Asfour who heads the criminal investigation branch of the police in the West Bank and is investigating the shooting disagrees.

"This act crossed a red line," he says. "For Palestinians to kill each other over politics is an outrage." He is worried that this is not the last time such a thing was attempted. "Unfortunately this is a very tense period and some people are worried enough about their interests to resort to violence."

The Palestinian Authority is struggling to stay in control of its own people, says Asfour. This is mainly because of Israeli measures that prevent the police from travelling between cities or from going out on armed patrols.

"We have lost control over Jenin and Nablus on the West Bank and Rafah in the Gaza Strip," says Asfour. Even militant groups such as the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades who are affiliated with Fatah and are deeply involved in the internal struggle cannot communicate effectively with their members in those places, he says. This is why their members have resorted to violence, says Asfour, who is close to the Brigades.

People want a "different political leadership because the current leadership is corrupt and inefficient," he says. "The people are worse off all the time and this leadership has failed to liberate them from Israeli occupation."

He clarifies quickly, though, that the reformers are not asking for Yasser Arafat to go. "He is our elected leader, a symbol of the Palestinian people. Arafat is not the target of the demonstrations."

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  • Jim Lobe, works as Inter Press Service's correspondent in the Washington, D.C., bureau. He has followed the ups and downs of neo-conservatives since well before their rise in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 attacks.

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