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Rifts Among Palestinians Grow as Power Struggle Looms

By Molly Moore and John Ward Anderson
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, November 7, 2004; Page A26

JERUSALEM, Nov. 6 -- Palestinian society is splintered along deep political, geographic and ideological lines that will be exacerbated by the death of Yasser Arafat, the only leader most Palestinians have ever known, according to Palestinian officials and analysts.

The divisions are hardening between various factions: Arafat's old guard and a new generation of reformists who have been waiting for years to assume power; local leaders in the West Bank and their counterparts in the Gaza Strip; nationalist and Islamic leaders; and the Palestinian diaspora and residents of the territories.

Mohammed Dahlan, 43, a former security chief in the Gaza Strip is one of several vying to replace Yasser Aradfat as the Palestinian leader. (File Photo)

By the force of his legendary status, charisma and accumulated decades of power, the 75-year-old Arafat bridged or imposed authoritarian control over most of those divisions.

"Now for any other leadership the ground rules have changed," said Ziad Abu Amr, an independent, reformist legislator from Gaza City. "No one else can do it the way Arafat did. Any new leader will have to work on power- sharing" between exiles and residents, the old guard and the new generation, Islamic militant groups and secular nationalists, he said.

The Islamic Resistance Movement, known as Hamas, has suggested a coalition leadership that includes all major factions, including Islamic groups. At the same time, other militant groups have warned they will oppose any Palestinian ruler who tries to end the uprising.

The decision of Palestinian leaders this past week to appoint Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia and his predecessor, Mahmoud Abbas, to the positions Arafat has long held has created an appearance of continuity and stability. But it is a short-term solution that could backfire if elections are not conducted relatively quickly, according to officials and analysts.

"Conducting timely and credible elections is crucial," said Mouin Rabbani, a Middle East analyst for the International Crisis Group who was visiting the West Bank city of Ramallah on Friday. "Arafat did not need Palestinian elections to become the legitimate Palestinian leader -- he had other sources of legitimacy because of his unique historical role. Anyone who replaces him is going to need clear popular mandates."

The Palestinian Authority is financially broke, politically divided, rife with corruption and largely unable to provide security for its own people. Even before Arafat's recent illness, top Palestinian officials warned the governing body was in danger of collapse and was unable to contain mounting internal violence and chaos in the Gaza Strip and some West Bank cities. Now, rival factions and interests will intensify the struggle for control of Palestinian institutions.

One contest will pit members of Arafat's old guard, such as Qureia, 66, and Abbas, 69, who have been part of Arafat's political entourage for decades, against new Palestinian political elites who have spent their lives in the territories. Among West Bank Palestinians, the most popular of the new generation is 45-year-old Marwan Barghouti, who has been imprisoned by Israel since being convicted on charges that he orchestrated attacks that killed five people. He has denied the charges. Israeli officials are not likely to release Barghouti from prison, according to Yuval Steinitz, chairman of the Israeli parliament's foreign affairs and defense committee.

In contrast to Qureia and Abbas, Barghouti is a firebrand with a magnetic personality. While Barghouti served as the West Bank leader of Arafat's political organization, the Fatah movement, he sought to keep his distance from the corruption surrounding Arafat. But even the Palestinian political faction that considers itself reformist is fractured by special interests and geography.

Two potential leadership contenders draw their influence from the Palestinian security forces they have led: Mohammed Dahlan, 43, a former security chief in the Gaza Strip who holds no official position but is a power broker in the isolated coastal strip; and Jibril Rajoub, 51, Arafat's national security adviser, who is from the southern West Bank city of Hebron. Security forces in Gaza loyal to Dahlan have been responsible for several attacks in recent months against competing security officials more loyal to Arafat.

But their geographic base could make it difficult for Dahlan or Rajoub to win broad-based elections.

Few leaders have emerged who are considered representative of the entire West Bank. Israeli troops have isolated major urban areas with checkpoints and restrictions on the use of major connecting roads by private Palestinian vehicles. As a result, some local mayors and governors who have become popular within their own communities are unknown elsewhere in the West Bank.

Perhaps the most volatile issue splitting Palestinians is the expanding influence of Islamic militant groups such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad. In addition to fueling support for an armed resistance, Hamas has won support among Palestinians in the Gaza Strip by providing social, health and education services in the most impoverished neighborhoods.

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