Backing seen weakening for Abbas

By Charles A. Radin and Sa'id Ghazali, Globe Staff and Globe Correspondent
April 5, 2005

RAMALLAH, West Bank -- Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who is being hailed internationally for his peacemaking efforts with Israel, is failing on virtually every important domestic front and is rapidly losing support in the territory he governs, Palestinian and Israeli officials, activists, and analysts say.

Violence has surged in the West Bank. Firing by Al Aqsa Brigades gunmen at Abbas' own headquarters last week was just the most widely publicized of numerous recent incidents in which militants disrupted public order and scorned efforts by members of Abbas' administration to rein them in. The same day, other gunmen torched a Palestinian Authority checkpoint in Tulkarem. Abbas' interior minister was fired on recently by Al Aqsa gunmen in Jenin.

Numerous attempts to disarm the gunmen have failed. Abbas's programs for injecting new blood into stagnant ministries and getting rid of ineffective and corrupt officials are stalled. And Abbas -- generally known by the nickname Abu Mazen -- is incurring deepening enmity both from the Palestinian establishment, which is resisting him at every turn, and from the young guard of the ruling Fatah movement, whose members believe he is not fulfilling his principal commitments.

''Abu Mazen promised us to unify the security forces, to fix the judiciary system, to arrest those involved in corruption and to put them on trial," said Issa Qaraqei, the West Bank leader of the Palestinian Prisoners' Club, which supports Palestinians being held in Israeli jails on charges ranging from terrorism to engaging in banned political activity.

Qaraqei and many of the prisoners are members of the Fatah young guard -- middle-aged men who generally were excluded from power under the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. Arafat favored those who were in exile with him in Tunis before the creation of the Palestinian Authority in 1994, and the Palestinian political establishment is dominated by veterans of the exile -- the so-called old guard -- led by Prime Minister Ahmed Qurei.

''Abu Mazen promised to give the younger generation a role in Fatah," Qaraqei said. ''We are still waiting. . . . But the time is very short. . . . The people do not see any positive change. Seventy percent live under the poverty line. The [Israeli] checkpoints are still there. . . . The [Israeli] army is still arresting people, the settlements expand. . . . People are starting to see Abu Mazen as a leader who has failed."

Despite growing impatience, many young guard leaders still hope Abbas will succeed, and they defend his initial efforts to fight corruption.

''It is unfair to bring Abu Mazen to trial after only three months," says Tayseer Nasrallah, a Palestinian National Council member from Nablus and a leader of the young guard. ''He inherited mountains of conflicts and contradictions in the Palestinian Authority and Fatah." He praised Abbas for stopping widespread financial abuses that occurred under Arafat's leadership.

But leaders of the old guard -- in particular Qurei and Fatah chairman Farouk Kaddoumi -- are openly confronting Abbas on issues that are critical to his success.

Qurei recently opposed Abbas's efforts to arrange an orderly Palestinian Authority takeover of Israeli settlements in the Gaza Strip when, as expected, Israel evacuates the settlements this summer. Palestinian, Israeli, and international analysts generally concur that an uncoordinated takeover could lead to attacks by Gaza militants on withdrawing Jewish settlers and to rivalry among Palestinian groups who want to take possession of the vacated areas.

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has pledged that the withdrawal will go forward on schedule and will not take place under fire. Israeli officials say this means prompt and overwhelming military moves if settlers or the soldiers evacuating them are attacked -- a chain of developments that would end the relative calm that has prevailed in the region since Arafat's death in November.

Further complicating Abbas's efforts to end violence and restart negotiations with the Israelis is the strident opposition of Kaddoumi. Abbas and Kaddoumi are the only surviving members of Fatah's founders and have long differed over the central Palestinian political issue -- the relationship with Israel. Abbas first advocated ending hostilities and negotiating peace in 1969 at a Palestinian National Council meeting in Amman, Jordan. Kaddoumi has never accepted the Oslo peace accords that led to creation of the Palestinian Authority, and continues to call for armed struggle.

In a message to the Fatah Revolutionary Council, a leading unit of the movement, in Gaza last week, Kaddoumi resurrected the rumor that Arafat, who was 75 years old, was poisoned by Israelis with help from unnamed Palestinians. Kaddoumi then attacked financial reforms undertaken by Abbas and Finance Minister Salam Fayyad as ''too tight" and charged that the attempt to disarm Palestinian militias was a US and Israeli plot.

Qurei and Kaddoumi each lost a major fight with Abbas soon after the elections, and in both instances the result was an old guard loss of funding and some political power. Qurei was forced to accept a reformist Cabinet, and Kaddoumi lost control of the Palestinian representative at the United Nations, one of the Palestinians' most prominent international posts.

But Qurei maintained enough strength to engineer rejection of Abbas's proposed pension reform last week -- legislation that would have retired 2,000 veteran bureaucrats who are mostly old guard supporters. And Kaddoumi has kept control of dozens of other Palestinian embassies that have historically been run from outside the occupied territories.

Almost all officials and observers agree that the crucial first step for Abbas to stabilize his regime and solidify his good relations with the international community is to disarm bands of gunmen who became fixtures in major Palestinian cities during the four years of conflict with Israel and to reabsorb them into normal society.

Many are former policemen and security men who joined the militias with official permission or encouragement during Arafat's time, but they have become increasingly unruly and liable to commit crimes against fellow Palestinians as the conflict has lost popular support, Arafat died, and Abbas and Fayyad cut their funding. According to the Palestinian Independent Commission for Citizens' Rights, gunmen in 2004 killed 170 Palestinians in civil strife or on suspicion of helping Israel.

''I am really very worried," said Gershon Baskin, Israeli co-director of a joint Israeli-Palestinian center for political and environmental cooperation -- one of the few cooperative organizations that kept functioning throughout the last four years. Baskin is critical of Israel for not doing more to support Abbas, but he also faults the Palestinian leader for ''moving too slowly and not being decisive enough."

Israel should do more to release Palestinian prisoners and increase freedom of movement for Palestinian civilians, Baskin said, but ''no doubt about it, Abu Mazen has commitments and he is not making good on them."

Following last week's incidents involving gunmen in Ramallah and Tulkarem, Abbas replaced his national security chief and created two groups -- one for Gaza, one for the West Bank -- to work on disarming the militias. The presidential office said in a statement that the groups would be given two weeks to complete their work.