Palestinian State of Nature

By Richard Cohen
Tuesday, September 13, 2005

Arafat was murdered.

No, not that Arafat (Yasser) but the other Arafat (Moussa). The latter was the cousin of the former and at one time his head of military intelligence. When Yasser Arafat died, Moussa was demoted by the new Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, and named an adviser. Last week in Gaza he was dragged out into the street and shot.

His murder -- an execution, actually -- followed a 30-minute gun battle between Moussa Arafat's security people and the 100 or so armed men in 20 vehicles who had come to get him. The killing attracted little international attention, which is pretty remarkable because it says more about the prospects for peace in the region than do the assurances of the Brioni suit set (assembling now for the U.N. session) that everything is going just fine. This would be particularly the case, we are told, if only the Israelis would cooperate by, among other things, limiting themselves to a block or two of Tel Aviv.

Think about it, though. Doesn't it say something -- and something troubling -- about a political entity (the Palestinian Authority) that two armed groups could battle for half an hour and not one of the PA's security forces could get to the scene and intervene? It is an odd state -- if a state is what it is -- where brigands can show up at the door and fight it out without anyone's calling 911. This, though, is what passes for Palestine.

You can argue that for all the calamity that the creation of Israel has meant to the Palestinians, it has been greatly exacerbated by the corruption and ineptitude of their own leadership. Israel, of course, is hardly blameless. It is out of Gaza, but it remains an occupying power on the West Bank, and its policies there are sometimes not pretty. Still, the Palestinians seem intent on making matters worse. As a society, they have exalted suicide bombings, tolerated senseless and atrocious terrorism and for years they apathetically supported the kleptomaniacal Yasser Arafat, whose peace plan consisted, basically, of waiting for Israel to evaporate. He died very rich but presumably very frustrated.

At the recent Ambrosetti conference of Italian and other notables in Cernobbio, Italy, both Amr Moussa, the head of the Arab League, and Saeb Erekat, the chief Palestinian negotiator, warned against blunt talk. Moussa insisted that anyone who questioned whether Arabs could have a democracy was a "racist." And Erekat, for his part, insisted that the term "Islamic terrorist" was likewise an expression of bigotry. This caused the plain-talking Sen. John McCain, a conference attendee, to suggest that the word "banana" be substituted for "Islamic" while I, exhaustively searching for the proper PC term, chanced upon "persons of terror." That cannot offend anyone.

But blunt talk is precisely what's needed. In the case of the Palestinians, they have to be told to shape up. The murder of Moussa Arafat is just the latest self-induced catastrophe. The very funeral of cousin Yasser was accompanied by mayhem and a gun battle in the mourning tent. Abbas, who was there to pay his respects, was shoved to the ground by his security detail. This was not an assassination attempt, everyone said, but merely a way of delivering a message. Abbas apparently got it. It may explain why he has moved with such timidity against the various militias. His life is on the line.

Gaza is lawless. Kidnappings are common. Armed gangs roam the streets. Under these conditions, it will be impossible for the Palestinians to secure outside investors. Who's going to put money in a business when there's virtually no rule of law? In fact, it took altruistic American Jewish investors to put up the money ($14 million) to buy the machinery -- computers and the like -- that kept Gaza's greenhouses running. From what one of them told me, the Palestinians themselves were so intent on not accepting any "tainted" aid that they were reconciled to losing the greenhouses and the jobs that came with them. It was a sorry spectacle.

Abbas has his work cut out for him. But he would be helped if his fellow Arabs and others in the international community held Palestinians as accountable as they do Israelis. The murder of Moussa Arafat and the ordinary lawlessness of Gaza show that when it comes to enemies, Palestinians don't need Israel. They do just fine on their own.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company