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November 12, 2004

Just What Mr. Palestine Ruled Over


by Jim Lobe

RAMALLAH - For almost four decades, Yasser Arafat was Mr. Palestine to many in this fractured homeland.

Yasser Arafat represented the Palestinian people, wherever they are, as the head of the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO), which was accepted by the Arab League as "the sole legal representative of the Palestinian people." He had an iron grip on the organization.

Arafat assumed leadership of the PLO in 1969, two years after the Fatah movement that advocated armed struggle against Israel joined the organization. Both Fatah and the PLO were founded in exile.

At the time, Israel existed within what was known as the "green line" cease-fire border of 1949. This demarcation had come about as the result of the war that started with the founding of the Jewish state after the UN resolution to partition Palestine in 1947.

Israel then did not include the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, the Gaza Strip, and the Golan heights. The war of 1947-1948 between Israel and the Palestinians and a number of Arab countries had displaced an estimated 700,000 Palestinians from areas that were assigned under the UN plan to Israel and from the areas into which it expanded during the war.

The rest of the area that was assigned to a future Palestinian state was taken over by neighboring Arab countries. The West Bank, including East Jerusalem, was annexed by Jordan. Egypt took over the Gaza strip.

In the six-day war of June 1967, Israel captured these areas as well as the Golan Heights and the Sinai peninsula. It withdrew from the latter after the 1977 peace agreement with Egypt.

The six-day war set off another wave of Palestinian refugees, some 300,000. Since 1949 all refugees, whether in "camps" in Gaza and the West Bank or in neighboring countries are taken care of by the UN Refugees and Works Agency (UNRWA), the only UN body that deals with a specific body of refugees.

The PLO is nominally the representative of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, refugees or not, and of those in the Arab countries and around the world.

All major Palestinian political factions such as the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) and the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine (DFLP) used to be part of the PLO, but now some of those allegiances have frayed.

After the outbreak of the first Palestinian uprising in 1987, the Intifada, two Islamic fundamentalist groups sprang up, Hamas and Islamic Jihad. They are not part of the PLO and are seen as openly in opposition to it most of the time, although sometimes they are invited to sit in on important meetings.

The situation became still more complicated with the Oslo peace accords in 1993 and subsequent agreements when the Palestinian Authority (PA) was established in the West Bank and Gaza.

The PA held its own elections for a legislative council and for the post of chairman of the PA in 1996. Hamas and Jihad did not participate, and Fatah overwhelmingly won the election. Yasser Arafat became chairman of the PA. He also remained head of the PLO.

The Palestinian population worldwide is estimated at between nine and ten million, including some 1.2 million who live in Israel and are sometimes called Israeli Arabs or Arab Israelis, according to figures provided by the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics, the Israeli Central Bureau of Statistics, and several international studies.

The population of the Palestinian territories, including East Jerusalem, is just under 3.5 million. This is divided between some 2.3 million people in the West Bank, of which some 200,000 are in Jerusalem, and some 1.2 million in Gaza.

That leaves more than 4.5 million people outside the area of "historic Palestine." Most of them live in the Arab world. About 500,000 live outside the Arab world, half of them in the Americas.

The people in the West Bank and Gaza, even though tightly controlled by Israel, are nominally ruled by the PA. The legislative council, also called the Palestinian parliament, has so far merely rubber-stamped Arafat's decisions.

Under U.S. and Israeli pressure, rules were changed last year to make room for a prime minister, because neither country wanted to deal with Arafat. Under Arafat, this function proved to be mostly powerless, not least because he remained chairman of the PLO.

The first prime minister was Mahmoud Abbas, Arafat's number two in the powerful executive committee of the PLO and in the central committee of Fatah. This did not help him, however, and Abbas was ousted after some four months.

The former speaker of the legislative council, Ahmed Qureia, then became prime minister, a post he still held when Arafat died.

Qureia, also known as Abu Ala, has taken over some of Arafat's responsibilities in the PA. Abbas, also known as Abu Mazen, has taken over the running of the important Fatah and PLO committees.

Under its laws, the PA is required to hold elections for a new chairman within 60 days of him dying or becoming incapacitated. Fatah would have to choose a new leader at its rarely held "annual" conference. And the PLO's Palestine National Congress, which meets even less frequently, would have to elect a new PLO leadership.


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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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