Who's in Charge in the Territories?

Israel is rapidly approaching the stage in which it will no longer have even the option of offering the Palestinians a political plan, as it will have to offer them to the heads of organizations and not to a central governing institution.

"Unfortunately, the Palestinian Authority is capable of doing no more than condemning the attack, but how does it dare condemn it when our nation is being massacred?" This was the reaction of Abdel Aziz Rantisi, a senior Hamas official, to last Thursday's suicide bombing of a bus in Jerusalem. Abu Hussein, who was portrayed as the spokesman of the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, a group associated with the Fatah organization that claimed responsibility for the attack, said: "We will continue on our road as long as Israel is occupying our lands. It is of no interest to us that political discussions are taking place." Islamic Jihad, some of whose activists were killed in the Israel Defense Forces' operation in Gaza last Wednesday, has not yet reacted, but it's unlikely it will stand aside and let other organizations avenge its blood. Its violent response will undoubtedly come.

It's possible, of course, to find a "message" in the Jerusalem attack. Maybe the perpetrators wanted to show that the violent resistance is continuing despite the prisoner exchange with Hezbollah; maybe it was a quick reaction to the IDF's operation in Gaza, where nine Palestinians were killed, some innocent civilians; and maybe it was a reaction to the meeting of two senior Egyptian officials, the foreign minister and the chief of intelligence, with the Palestinian leadership. The luxury is that every terrorist attack has an immediate explanation, which is rooted in an ideological context, and the choice is free. However, any attempt to find a method in the terrorist attacks, such as the personality profile of the suicide bombers, will end in frustration.

That's because in the new circumstances, Israel is no longer facing one Palestinian representation that can even pretend to take responsibility for the situation or claim an ability to control; instead, there is a multitude of groups - not only the large, well-known organizations, but also gangs, local musclemen and neighborhood "entrepreneurs" who are capable of producing terrorist attacks. The usual slogan, to the effect that the Palestinian Authority is responsible for terrorist attacks, or for the absence of security, sounds like a distant echo of "better times," when Israel still had someone with whom to talk. Today, who in the PA can be responsible for what is happening in the territories? Mohammed Dahlan, the former security chief in Gaza? Jibril Rajoub, Dahlan's counterpart in the West Bank? Who has the means to act against terrorists?

In the past three years, Israel has played a double game: on the one hand, it has removed the PA from any position of power and decision making, destroyed its infrastructure of security and civilian control, reoccupied the West Bank and Gaza Strip, and blocked any attempt to advance a political process. On the other hand, Israel has continued to insist that the PA is exclusively responsible for everything that happens, has depicted it as a terrorist organization and has ruled out every official Palestinian representation.

The concept that underlay this policy, and continues to underlie it, is the illusion that delegitimizing the PA, and, at the personal level, Yasser Arafat, will in the best case bring about the emergence of a different Palestinian leadership, with which Israel will be able to conduct negotiations, and in the worst case will allow Israel to go on occupying the territories without interference. Neither scenario was fulfilled. Arafat continues to lead the PA and no alternative leadership has sprung up. At the same time, the Israeli occupation of the territories is confined to the security aspect alone and is incapable of providing solutions for the population's civil needs.

The result is that the terrorist organizations are in control and are competing among themselves over the quality of the attacks against Israel, relying on a sympathetic Palestinian population that has accumulated enough reasons to abhor Israeli rule. This is a public that does not ask itself whether it is against one political plan or another, but which organization it supports.

Israel is rapidly approaching the stage in which it will no longer have even the option of offering the Palestinians a political plan, as it will have to offer them to the heads of organizations and not to a central governing institution. Yet Israel will also be unable to implement Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's unilateral disengagement plan, because even if he does actually intend to go ahead with it, it is too thin, doesn't address the Palestinians' national aspirations and creates a prison of poverty and violence, without getting the IDF out of the territories.