Out from under Arafat's shadow
There is a sizable group in Fatah - grassroots activists and senior members, graduates of Israeli jails - that is trying to extricate itself from the clutch of habits formed over long years of autocracy, from the internal paralysis that these habits created, in their opinion, in the face of the Israeli occupation and the growing power of Hamas.
There is said to be a senior longtime Fatah activist belonging to the internal opposition of that organization, a reformist, who suddenly turned into an Arafat supporter. When asked why he changed his position, he answered that a well-known fortune teller predicted that Arafat would live and be healthy for another 16 years. Standing up to Arafat for another 16 years is too much for me, he explained.
It doesn't matter what is truth and what is fantasy here. The point is that the story demonstrates a real phenomena: that Arafat still calls the shots in Fatah, even from his confinement in the Mukata; that Fatah members believe he can rule them while confined; and that there is still opposition in Fatah.
There is nothing easier than chalking up Fatah's internal weakness to Arafat's omnipotent machinations. This is how personal and collective responsibility is removed from the shoulders of thousands - senior and grassroots activists - who have insinuated and continue to insinuate themselves into Arafat's patronistic regime. After all, for the money to be given for a villa, a director's job, or the funding of a daughter's wedding, there must be a taker.
But there is a sizable group in Fatah - grassroots activists and senior members, graduates of Israeli jails - that is trying to extricate itself from the clutch of habits formed over long years of autocracy, from the internal paralysis that these habits created, in their opinion, in the face of the Israeli occupation and the growing power of Hamas. This group that says they have had their fill of blaming Arafat for all the internal malaises of the Israeli occupation does not attack Arafat directly, but speaks mainly of "his aides, advisors, the veteran leadership holding positions for years without elections," who sabotage every possibility for change. The group swears that Arafat is their leader.
The internal elections Fatah is holding in the Gaza Strip since the end of May (gradually, in each of 34 electoral districts separately), are part of this attempt at extrication. Granted, it is an election for low-level officials in terms of the hierarchy of the organization, who are in turn to select the representatives of seven districts in the Strip for the movement's central committee, which itself is to be elected by representatives in the West Bank, Gaza, and the Palestinian diaspora. It is a long, complicated process, the end of which - the selection of a new leadership for Fatah - is not on the horizon. But the nature of election campaigns is that they publicly raise questions about existing power centers.
Even when the elected officials are minor, if they are identified with the demand for reform as is the case in the elections so far in Gaza, it is interesting news. The excitement over the elections is not reflected in the Palestinian media, which is silent on the subject. Whether the silence comes from above or is voluntary is a matter for each individual to decide.
Arafat made a failed attempt to annul the results of the elections, when it became clear that many of the candidates and those elected are on the payroll of the security services, especially the Preventive Security. Fatah's insistance on persevering with the elections in spite of the order engendered an official explanation that there had been a misunderstanding.
Meanwhile, there is another absurdity going on and no one knows where it will lead: those demanding internal reform - especially in the Gaza Strip - are identified with Mohammed Dahlan and the Preventive Security. But Dahlan garnered his considerable power in Fatah and the Gaza Strip not only because of his past as an activist against the Israeli occupation, and not only because of his leadership capabilities, but because he, like Arafat, took care to create a group of loyalists through various kinds of compensation.
For example, thanks to his connections with the Shin Bet security services forged during the Oslo years, Dahlan's associates enjoyed relative freedom of movement that others did not have. While still head of Preventive Security, Dahlan knew how to make the right business deals - another of his associates is Mohammed Rashid, Arafat's money man - and the right impression on American and British diplomatic and security officials who promote him.
In the last four years Dahlan managed to deflect charges of "treason" stemming from his connections abroad and in Israel, yet at the same time was able to stay off Israel's wanted list in spite of the fact that Palestinian fighters in Gaza came from within the ranks of the Preventive Security.
In any case, clear supporters of democratization in Fatah and the PLO put their faith in him, apparently convinced that only a power like Dahlan can stand up to the inert veteran leadership. They argue that Dahlan knows how to take criticism (as opposed to the veteran leadership), that Dahlan cares about his supporters, and is not alienated like the leadership that came from Tunisia.
He does not engender the same kind of admiration in the West Bank as in Gaza, but there too, Fatah members are heard hoping he becomes stronger if that will bring about the weakening or the removal of the veteran powers that be. In order to strengthen Dahlan further, elections are needed that will reveal his popularity and the faith in him. But the elections, they hope, will also obligate him to obey the internal logic that the elections present: exposure to public criticism.