Palestinian affairs: Airing their dirty linen in public

The events in Jericho on Tuesday served to heighten calls in the Fatah heartland for Mahmoud Abbas to resign and for the Palestinian Authority to be dissolved.

jericho prisoners 298.88 (photo credit: AP)
jericho prisoners 298.88
(photo credit: AP)
Less than an hour after the assassins of tourism minister Rehavam Ze'evi surrendered to the IDF in Jericho on Tuesday, a large group of Fatah activists met in Bethlehem to discuss the repercussions of the operation. Several activists who spoke at the closed meeting directed their anger and frustration toward Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas and the PA leadership. Only a few spoke out against Israel. Pressure is mounting in the Fatah heartland for Abbas to resign and for the PA to be dissolved. For the Fatah representatives, the IDF operation provided further proof that the PA and its leaders were simply too detached from the realities of everyday life in the territories to provide effective government, let alone manage such a major crisis. Even worse, in the view of the Fatah loyalists, was the wide-held suspicion that the Israeli siege of the Jericho prison and the embarrassing capture of Ahmad Sa'adat and the killers of Ze'evi, was part of a conspiracy involving Israel, the US, Britain and perhaps even Abbas himself. The IDF-sponsored "lingerie" collection displayed on the makeshift Jericho Prison "catwalk" by the senior officers of Palestinian security only increased the anger of Fatah activists. Many of the half-naked, reluctant "fashion models" - whose images were beamed live to hundreds of millions of viewers courtesy of Al-Jazeera - were known until Tuesday as the toughest interrogators and feared secret service agents of the PA. "This was an exceptionally humiliating scene for the Palestinian Authority," said one of the participants in the Fatah gathering in Bethlehem. "It's a severe blow to Abbas and Fatah, because all these security officers are actually Fatah members. Today we signed a petition calling on President Abbas to resign and dissolve the PA. Who needs such an authority that cannot even protect its prisoners?" ONE OF the main proponents of the campaign to dissolve the Authority is Hafez Barghouti, a trusted Fatah insider and editor of the official PA daily, Al-Hayat Al-Jadida. "What happened in Jericho is a scandal for the Palestinian Authority," Barghouti wrote in his regular column. "An authority that cannot protect its reputation and sovereignty has no right to exist." Fatah is already under pressure following its humiliating defeat by Hamas in the Palestinian Legislative Council elections in January. As late as Thursday, its leaders were still so divided, they couldn't decide whether to join a Hamas-led cabinet or not. Last week, Abbas shocked Hamas leaders by rejecting their political program and insisting he would not allow the formation of a cabinet that did not undertake to recognize agreements already signed with Israel. But Abbas remains president whether Fatah joins the cabinet or not. For the next level of Fatah officials, the question of whether to join the coalition is more crucial: Despite their defeat in the election, they are still hungry for power. The internal dispute within Fatah over the formation and make-up of the new cabinet could evolve into a power-struggle between Abbas and senior Fatah officials. The gathering in Bethlehem could be the first shot in what might become an all-out war over the leadership of the movement. Cheering from the sidelines is Farouk Kadoumi, the veteran and estranged Fatah leader who believes that he, and not Abbas, is the natural successor to Yasser Arafat. Kadoumi opposed the Oslo Accords from the outset, and has already torpedoed a planned meeting of the Fatah Central Committee in Jordan in the belief that the growing internal crisis will only benefit his claim to the leadership. Meanwhile, inside the territories, pretenders to the throne - including Mohammed Dahlan, Jibril Rajoub and Marwan Barghouti - are playing their cards close to their chests and waiting to see whether Abbas will be fatally weakened by the infighting. All sides know that once Hamas forms the new cabinet, the position of Abbas will be further weakened. The imminent financial crisis bound to be triggered by the suspension of financial aid from the EU and US has been brought even closer by the kidnappings of international officials and attacks on European institutions in Gaza this week. When 150,000 PA workers find themselves without salaries for weeks on end, even the meager underwear on display in Jericho this week will begin to look like luxury, and the hard men in shorts will come to be seen as a symbol of the Authority's dirty linen.