Khalil Hamra  /  AP
Palestinian gunmen of the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades gather during a demonstration against Yasser Arafat's appointment of his cousin as head of security services Sunday at the Rafah refugee camp.
By Martin Fletcher Correspondent
NBC News
updated 7/19/2004 11:02:25 AM ET 2004-07-19T15:02:25

The walls are closing in on Yasser Arafat. Stuck for more than two years in a few small rooms in his West Bank headquarters in Ramallah, he is accused of being increasingly out of touch with his own people.

Now, a violent upheaval in the Gaza Strip has turned the spotlight on a series of poor decisions that are rebounding on the Palestinian leader, highlighting his own slippery hold on power.

Arafat's formula for defanging his critics has long been to accuse them of being Israeli and American puppets, collaborators with the occupiers, instantly putting them on the defensive and distracting attention from the issues they raised. A beating by Arafat's militants would often follow, and criticism would soon die down.

But this time it's the militants who are doing the criticizing. Led by Al-Aqsa Brigade gunmen, thousands of Palestinians this weekend marched in defiance of Arafat, calling for an end to his corruption, cronyism and nepotism.

The demonstration followed Arafat's decision to fire the head of security in the increasingly tumultuous Gaza Strip and replace him with his cousin.

Yasser Arafat Holds Meeting Amidst Security Crisis
David Silverman  /  Getty Images
Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat
Charges of corruption are nothing new, but never before have so many disparate groups of Palestinians, including those from Arafat's own Fatah movement, formed such a united front on such a clearly definable issue — end corruption or else.

Gun battles left at least 18 wounded as Palestinians attacked their own police stations and government buildings. After two leading Palestinian security chiefs were kidnapped and then released unharmed, and with more bloodshed threatened, Arafat backed down.

He fired Moussa Arafat, just two days after appointing him head of the Palestinian security forces.

The gunmen accused Moussa Arafat of being even more corrupt than the man he succeeded --Abdel Razek Majaide -- who was also fired for corruption after the gunmen demanded his head. On Monday, Arafat asked Majaide to return to his post.

Victory for reform? Hardly
A defeat for Yasser Arafat, and a victory for the gunmen who defied him? Yes. A victory for the forces of anti-corruption and reform? Hardly.

While there is a growing grass-roots call for reform, led by responsible and admirable Palestinian politicians, the issues of reform and corruption are just the flags that lend legitimacy to the gunmen who wish to challenge Arafat's leadership.

Their inspiration is reported to be Mohammed Dahlan, the former head of preventive security in Gaza and a security consultant to Arafat. Dahlan, a Palestinian Authority official who became rich in a very brief time, is also accused of corruption.

The gunmen obey the rule of the Kalashnikov, not the rule of law, and Palestinian analysts report that their struggle is not so much to end corruption as to get a share of the cake.

The current power struggle was triggered by Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's declaration that Israel will pull every settler and soldier out of Gaza by the end of 2005.

Sharon's move has led to confusion and growing chaos in Gaza as the Palestinian Authority, Hamas, and various smaller militias and would-be leaders begin to jockey for leadership positions in the future, occupation-free Gaza.

But their first obstacle is Arafat, who is grimly holding on to power even as that power diminishes daily.

Even his own Prime Minister Ahmed Quereia has submitted his resignation, complaining that Gaza is in chaos because it is impossible for him to control the security services and reestablish law and order. The reason -- Arafat won't give up his control of the dozen or so separate security organs.

Under strong pressure this weekend Arafat agreed to streamline those services from a dozen to just three and to appoint new leaders. But even that gesture doesn't appease anyone.

Under Arafat's new orders the three security services will report to the Palestinian National Security Council, which in turn reports to just one man -- Yasser Arafat.

Martin Fletcher is the NBC News Bureau Chief and chief correspondent in Tel Aviv.


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