The eruption of popular violence against Palestinian Authority (PA) officials in the Gaza Strip in July reflected both popular discontent with the PA and a power struggle between "young guard" nationalists and their "old guard" rivals who dominate the Palestinian leadership. Members of the young guard seeking to gain a leading role in Gaza after Israel's anticipated withdrawal in 2005 have mounted a new push for reform to weaken the old guard's control.
Prime Minister Ahmed Qurie and the Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC) are trying to capitalize on the turmoil to push their own reform agenda. Together reformers call for strengthening PA institutions, affirming the primacy of the temporary constitution, or Basic Law, and expediting elections within Fatah, the largest faction of the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO), and at the local and national levels. Reformers also demand the replacement of many of President Yasser Arafat's loyalists in the security services and the bureaucracy with young guard members. The young guards recognize that Arafat will do his best to impede their agenda. Yet the unprecedented public enthusiasm for democratic change has emboldened young reformers to come out in the open, even if this means a direct confrontation with the man who symbolizes their national aspirations.
Organized calls for reform in the Palestinian political system date back to 1997, when a PLC committee issued an exceedingly critical report on corruption and mismanagement among Arafat's closest PA associates. The current intifada, triggered in September 2000 in part by young reformers, unleashed sociopolitical changes that led the young guard, and their supporters in the refugee camps and poor urban areas, to become weary of corruption and paralysis of the PA and its lack of popular legitimacy. A large section of the middle class also came to share these frustrations. The largest campaign for reform, spurred by the dismal performance of PA institutions during the Israeli reoccupation of West Bank cities in March-April 2002, forced Arafat to agree, albeit reluctantly, to some changes. Soon after the incursion, he signed the Basic Law (which the PLC had passed in 1997), approved the unification of national finances under an account controlled by a new finance minister, and set a date for national elections.
The Bush administration's June 2002 announcement of its policy of Palestinian regime change and the Israeli siege against Arafat a few months later tarnished the reform agenda by associating it with Israeli and U.S. demands. The external political and military pressure emboldened Arafat and his allies and dampened calls for reform, since no patriotic young guard reformer wanted to be linked to Bush and Sharon.
In March 2003, a new phase was triggered by the international effort to push for the implementation of the "Road Map" for peace, backed by the United States, the United Nations, the European Union, and Russia. The plan makes an explicit linkage between Palestinian reform and progress in the peace process. Combined international and domestic pressures led the PLC to approve amendments to the Basic Law that transferred most of the administrative, financial, and internal security powers of the president to the cabinet and created the position of prime minister. Mahmoud Abbas, who was appointed to the post in May 2003, failed to translate these amendments into real change. Arafat and his loyalists undermined his authority and usurped many of his constitutionally-granted powers. Abbas, himself a member of the old guard and weak to begin with, could not gain enough public support to mount a successful challenge to Arafat. To do so would have required him to deliver where Arafat could not—in the peace process. Israel's failure to take steps that would have bolstered Abbas—removing checkpoints, releasing prisoners, freezing settlement expansion, and ending its occupation of West Bank cities—and the failure of the United States to push Israel to take these risks denied Abbas the opportunity to build domestic credibility and move reform forward. Abbas resigned after four months. Reforms were stalled and elections postponed.
The PLC is trying to build on the overwhelming public support for reform expressed in the aftermath of July's Gaza upheaval by forcing Arafat to end his blatant violations of the Basic Law and to sign laws the PLC has already passed. The PLC also wants Arafat to take tangible steps toward unifying the security services and fighting corruption and to set a new date for national elections. So far, Arafat has managed to resist these pressures. The PLC announced in frustration on September 1 that it was suspending its sessions for one month. Arafat will probably make limited concessions eventually, but will fight to protect his loyalists in the old guard, thereby frustrating efforts to accomplish deeper reforms.
The conclusion is obvious: only national elections that allow the public to remove the old guard will empower reformers to bring about the necessary changes. For this reason, Arafat will continue to oppose such elections. In this, he has unlikely allies: the United States and Israel. Afraid that Arafat will be reelected, they refuse to allow elections to take place in the Palestinian territories.
Khalil Shikaki holds a Ph.D. in political science from Columbia University and is the director of the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research (PSR) in Ramallah.