'Now it's official; we have more than one authority in the Gaza Strip," remarked a Palestinian legislator upon hearing of the assassination of Gen. Moussa Arafat on Wednesday morning.
One of Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas's slogans over the past few months has been: "One Authority, One Gun and One Law for All."
But the execution-style killing of Arafat, which took place only a few hundred meters away from Abbas's residence and the headquarters of several security agencies in Gaza City, shows that the slogan is as irrelevant as so many other of the Palestinian leader's promises.
Ever since he was elected as chairman of the Palestinian Authority, Abbas has been striving to introduce major reforms in the PA's security establishment, but with limited success.
Although he has dismissed some of the corrupt generals and colonels responsible for lawlessness and anarchy, Abbas has failed to unite the rival security forces under one central command. Some of the former security chiefs continue to control private militias in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
Gen. Arafat was a fine example.
Sources in the Gaza Strip say that even after he was ousted from the Military Intelligence Force, a security organization he founded in 1994, Arafat retained control over many of his former subordinates in the force.
The sources point out that up to the day he was assassinated, Arafat had at least 50 Military Intelligence operatives serving as his private bodyguards and "enforcers." And, they add, he was not the only "warlord" in the Gaza Strip.
Civil Affairs Minister Muhammed Dahlan, who founded and headed the much-feared Preventative Security Service until 2002, is described by many people in the Gaza Strip as the de facto commander of the force. His successor, Gen. Rashid Abu Shabak, consults with Dahlan almost on every matter, they say.
Both Dahlan and Abu Shabak are rumored to have masterminded and carried out the 30-minute army-style raid on Arafat's house in the fashionable Tal al-Hawa neighborhood. The two, along with Interior Minister Nasser Youssef, are among Arafat's arch enemies. Moreover, they are believed to have been behind three unsuccessful attempts to liquidate Arafat over the past few years.
IT WAS difficult this week to find any Palestinian who was surprised by the brutal killing of Arafat. "The writing was on the wall," said a Palestinian journalist living in Gaza City. "Everyone knew that it was only a matter of time before Gen. Arafat would be killed."
The journalist, like many Palestinians in the Gaza Strip, dismiss claims that Arafat was murdered because of his involvement in corruption.
"Yes, he was a very corrupt and brutal man, but those who killed him are not saints," he says. "This is a battle between warlords jockeying for power. They are all bad guys."
However, the warlords and security organizations are only part of the problem facing Abbas. Ironically, ever since he and his interior minister issued orders banning militiamen from displaying their weapons in public, the phenomenon has increased remarkably, especially in the Gaza Strip. And in another ironic twist, more militiamen are seen on the streets ever since Abbas moved his office to Gaza City ahead of the disengagement.
In recent weeks, thousands of gunmen belonging to various Palestinian groups have been staging daily marches and "press conferences" on the occasion of Israel's pullout from the Gaza Strip. The PA security forces have done nothing to stop the phenomenon. Even when hundreds of disgruntled Fatah gunmen lately attacked the Palestinian parliament building in Gaza City, the security forces stood on the side and watched, prompting some to dub them as "United Nations troops."
Sensing growing weakness on the part of Abbas, Hamas went as far as publishing the names of its "military" commanders in the Gaza Strip and threatening to use force against anyone who tries to disarm the movement.
MOUSSA ARAFAT was victim No. 101 in the spate of domestic violence that has hit the PA-ruled areas since the beginning of the year. Some Palestinians attribute the unprecedented upsurge in violence to the lull in the fighting with Israel, which has been in effect since the beginning of the year. Others blame Abbas's reluctance to crack down on armed gangs and impose law and order.
The PA Interior Ministry, which is responsible for the security forces, has become the subject of numerous jokes on the Palestinian street, mainly because of the strongly-worded and carefully-drafted statements it has been issuing several times a day.
"You can't fight anarchy and crime with rhetoric and beautiful statements," says a former security official in Ramallah. When Youssef announced on Wednesday a state of emergency in the Gaza Strip, some Palestinians reacted with laughter, noting that Palestinian policemen were too busy burning tires and blocking roads in protest over their low salaries to be on high alert.
Abbas is now under growing pressure to fire Interior Minister Nasser Youssef for his failure to take drastic measures to curb the violence. According to the official, the Americans and some Europeans want to see Dahlan replace Youssef as interior minister because they believe he is capable of enforcing law and order.
"Of course they're mistaken, because Dahlan is a controversial figure with limited power, particularly in the West Bank," he adds.
The timing of the assassination could not have been worse for Abbas. It comes only days before Israel hands over the dismantled settlements in the Gaza Strip to the PA, which says it wants to do its utmost to prove to the world that the Palestinians are capable of getting their act together.
The choice, many Palestinians say, is between turning the Gaza Strip into war-torn Somalia or Hong Kong.