Militants Make Unprecedented Push To Gain a Voice in Palestinian Affairs
By Molly Moore and John Ward Anderson
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, July 8, 2004; Page A01
JERUSALEM, July 7 -- The armed wing of Yasser Arafat's Fatah political movement has called for a comprehensive campaign against corruption in the Palestinian Authority, recommending that Arafat relinquish some of his powers and that militant groups -- including Islamic organizations -- be granted a formal governing voice, according to a report obtained by The Washington Post.
The proposal presented to senior Palestinian officials by the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades is the first formal attempt by an armed resistance group to seek a political role in the Palestinian Authority since the current uprising against Israel began nearly four years ago.
The 10-page document calls for the expulsion and prosecution of government officials involved in corruption, a wholesale purge of relatives and cronies of senior officials from government payrolls and a halt to the practice of government officials monopolizing sectors of the Palestinian economy to line "their private pockets."
The paper lashes out at "wives and sons and daughters of officials who are registered as employees and receive high salaries from the Palestinian Authority and are either at home or abroad." It attacks bureaucrats who "hold official titles and government jobs . . . when in fact they have no role other than the salary and position." It demands "eradication of the corruption in most of the PLO embassies and representatives" overseas.
Some Palestinian officials described the appeal as a major shift in the strategy of militant fighters and one of the most blistering internal criticisms yet of corruption in the Palestinian government.
"The impact of this initiative is that for the first time, something is coming from the ground up. It has credibility," said Ahmad Ghunaim, a member of Fatah's most influential governing councils and a representative of the movement's wing of young reformers.
In addition, Ghunaim said, "this is the first time the military part of Fatah is trying to force reforms."
Established by Arafat in 1959, Fatah became the most influential faction within the Palestine Liberation Organization and now dominates the 10-year-old Palestinian Authority. Fatah created the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades as its armed wing at the start of the current uprising to compete with, and stem the growing popularity of, other armed organizations -- principally the Islamic Resistance Movement, known as Hamas, and Islamic Jihad -- that waged campaigns of violence against Israeli soldiers and civilians.
According to Zakaria Zbeida, who heads the al-Aqsa group in the northern West Bank city of Jenin, al-Aqsa leaders in the West Bank and Gaza Strip crafted the proposal partially in response to Israel's announced plan to withdraw soldiers and Jewish settlers from the Gaza Strip within the next few years.
"We want to take part in this stage and not have the political process bypass us," Zbeida said in an interview at a rundown hideout in the Jenin refugee camp, as an armed assistant kept watch over a nearby street and an unmanned Israeli surveillance drone circled overhead. "We come with this initiative to prove we are not just a group of fighters throwing bullets here and there. . . . We are ready to sit and talk."
The al-Aqsa document urges a separation of powers between the Palestinian Authority and the umbrella Palestine Liberation Organization, saying "it is inconceivable" that both organizations can be headed by the same person. Arafat is chairman of the PLO executive committee and president of the Palestinian Authority.
"There's no doubt what it's calling for is significant," said Khalil Shikaki, a Palestinian pollster and political analyst. "This is a way of saying to Arafat that 'It's time for you to step down as head of the Palestinian Authority.' . . . That's a direct assault on Arafat. It's a clear indictment of the whole old guard."
Some Palestinian officials said the entrenched Palestinian leadership was unlikely to accept al-Aqsa's demands, which are far more detailed and wider in scope than reforms of the Palestinian Authority currently being sought by the United States, Israel and other outside governments and institutions.
Spokesmen for Arafat and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon dismissed the document. Arafat's spokesman, Nabil Abu Rudeineh, said it did not sound "serious."
Raanan Gissin, a spokesman for Sharon, said the proposal represented a power struggle between Arafat loyalists and younger Palestinian leaders. Al-Aqsa, Gissin added, "will replace one regime of intimidation with another. . . . Those who are with them will benefit, and those who are against them will be shot in the street."
However, Hassan Abu Libdeh, chief of staff for Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia, said the document was important because "it shows al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades are very much willing to be integrated into the political team."
Although militant organizations in the Gaza Strip have begun discussions with the Palestinian Authority over shared control of Gaza if Israel completes its proposed withdrawal, the al-Aqsa document is the first formal proposal by a militant group outlining its demands and recommendations for participation in the government.
The report has been widely circulated among senior politicians and officials within the Palestinian Authority but has not been made public, according to al-Aqsa representatives and numerous Palestinian officials. Zbeida and Palestinian officials who have studied the document said the Palestinian government has offered no official response.
The proposals have been made at a time when the Israeli military has increased its assassinations of militant leaders in the West Bank and armed resistance groups have not conducted a suicide bombing inside Israel in nearly four months. Israeli officials say their military operations and the construction of a barrier separating the West Bank from Israel have diminished the ability of the militant groups to attack inside Israel.
The criticisms of the Palestinian Authority echo public sentiments. In an opinion poll released Sunday by Shikaki's Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research, 87 percent of Palestinians questioned said they believed institutions throughout the Palestinian Authority were corrupt.
The document recommends that the Palestinian government "open the doors to the absorption of the new generation" of leaders and government officials, a demand that has been sought for years by younger leaders and thwarted by Arafat and his associates. It recommends creation of a professional civil service, a strong and impartial judiciary, freedom of the press and a democratic society.
"There is a generational difference . . . different backgrounds and conditions and privileges," Ziad Abu Amr, an independent, reformist member of the Palestinian legislature and part of that younger generation, said in an interview in Gaza City.
Al-Aqsa also asks the Palestine Liberation Organization -- which has a strong history of secularism and separation from Islamic movements -- to integrate "all the national and Islamic forces." In the Palestinian territories, as across the Arab world, Islamic groups have grown in popularity, partially as a result of the conflict with Israel and the U.S.-led invasion and occupation of Iraq.
In Shikaki's poll, a greater percentage of those surveyed said they would vote for Islamic candidates (28 percent) than would vote for Fatah candidates (26 percent) if local elections were held soon.