Arafat's departure will open up power struggle

Arafat is seriously ill. His days are clearly numbered now. Yossi Schwartz in Jerusalem explains how this will affect the balance of forces within the Fatah movement and how this will open up more room for Hamas. It also marks the beginning of a new period in which Hamas will be called on to stabilise the situation, thus exposing itself before the Palestinian masses.

The longstanding leader of the PLO and President of the Palestinian Authority is seriously ill and may not have long to live. The latest reports indicate he is in a coma. Others are speculating that he may be already clinically dead. Whatever the situation is, it is clear his days are numbered.

The ailing Palestinian leader had lost some of his credibility over the past period. He is disliked by many Palestinians for his role as a collaborator with the US and the Israeli state, and many blame him for not having stood up firmly enough to the continuing Israeli onslaught. During the brief period when the Palestinian Authority was set up it was common knowledge that the coterie around Arafat was busy lining its pockets while the Palestinian people continued to live in horrible conditions. However, because of his historical role - he was seen by many for decades as the embodiment of the Palestinian people's struggle for national liberation - he still enjoys a lot of respect among the wider public. In this sense he was able to hold together some kind of equilibrium within the Palestinian population.

Arafat, however, has not prepared his own succession. Arafat’s death would signal the end of an era and the beginning of a new one whose features are going to be very different from those we have been accustomed to. Fatah’s various components have always been kept together by the figure of Arafat. The old guard within Fatah, people such as former and current Prime Ministers Mahmud Abbas and Ahmad Quraya and the heads of the various security agencies, are not likely to form any viable collective leadership and thus Arafat’s death will signal the beginning of an internal power struggle. It will weaken Fatah and its different factions and push them apart.

In the short term Hamas is going to be the winner in this process. It is going to play even more of a central role in the leadership of the Palestinian nationalist movement than it has done up till now. From statements being made by some of its representatives we can see how Hamas is preparing to at least fill part of the gap that will be left by the departure of Arafat. It is in this context that we are not surprised to hear the latest statement of Ismail Haniya, Hamas leader in Gaza:

“We will not allow any chaos or disunity to occur and the best way to realise this goal is by formulating a united national leadership that would lead the Palestinian people to... prepare for elections in which all Palestinians would participate.”

Hamas has been getting ready for many months to play a “moderate role”, i.e. to collaborate with the rulers of the U.S and Israel. This we have explained in previous articles.

Atif Udwan, political science professor at the Islamic University of Gaza, speaking to (November 4) said that, “I think Hamas is a mature political movement, it has learned the lessons of the past. I am not worried a bit about Hamas playing a negative or destabilising factor in the Palestinian struggle.” Atif Udwan is an expert on Hamas, and he explained how the movement has been steadily moving towards moderation.

Thus in the short term Hamas is going to gain from the death of Arafat. Without Arafat the Fatah movement will lose even more authority, and the movement best placed to gain from this is Hamas. However, its gains will not last for ever. By being forced to play more of a central role, Hamas will also have to show what policies it stands for. As it is a reactionary force, it is going to expose its real nature as a collaborator with the imperialist order. Until now it has been able to put up a pretence of intransigent anti-imperialism. This image will break down over the next period. Many Palestinians who until now have had illusions in Hamas will start to see through its thin superficial veneer. The limited narrow, nationalist outlook of Hamas will be exposed. This will give the genuine revolutionaries among the Palestinian population new opportunities to emerge and spread the ideas of the class struggle as opposed to ethnic conflict.

It will be like in Iran. The Islamic fundamentalists hijacked the revolution and then formed a new regime. Once in power the fundamentalists clamped down on the working class. Now the Iranian workers and youth are beginning to mobilise and this time it is against the fundamentalists. The same will happen among the Palestinians, but it will be a much faster process than in Iran. There is very little room for manoeuvre for the Hamas leaders.

Thus what we are witnessing is a new development, a new step in the overall process of the growing consciousness of the Palestinian masses, that can lead only to one conclusion in the long run: the solution to the Palestinian question can only come through the class struggle, through internationalism, in the common struggle of all workers against the capitalist class that has created the present mess.