Let Us Vote
By Khalil Shikaki
July 31, 2004

Gaza is responding to Ariel Sharon's withdrawal plan. Israel's impending disengagement has triggered the current turmoil there, as nationalist warlords and other leaders of the young guard jockey to ensure that they will come out on top in the post-withdrawal period. They calculate that once Israel is out of Gaza, they may lose the justification to arm themselves and maintain their independent militias (such as al Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades), the most effective means they have today to assert themselves and weaken the grip of their old-guard rivals in the Palestinian national movement. If their efforts fail, they will have a stake in the continuation of Palestinian-Israeli violence after Israel's withdrawal from Gaza. The resolution of this power struggle, therefore, has implications for all parties in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

As Israel readies itself to pull out of Gaza, leaders of the nationalist young guard have exploited the fact that most of Yasir Arafat's loyalists are corrupt and inept, and hated by the public. Because Israel is withdrawing unilaterally, the leaders of the old guard are no longer needed to negotiate the end of Israeli occupation. So in the eyes of the next generation, they have become increasingly irrelevant. The mounting public clamor for fundamental reforms and clean government has emboldened young-guard leaders to challenge Arafat directly, and the current turmoil in Gaza represents the most serious challenge to Arafat's leadership since 1983.

Most of the underlying causes for the turmoil, however, have always been present. A dysfunctional Palestinian political system has led to serious divisions and fragmentation within the nationalist camp, an empowerment of Hamas and other Islamists, and a specter of the Palestinian Authority's disintegration and loss of legitimacy. The armed intifada of the last four years has allowed young nationalists to intensify their fight against a cadre that is perceived by the public as responsible for failures in state-building and peacemaking. Arafat's lack of vision and inability to project clear direction during these difficult intifada years, and the resulting Palestinian political paralysis, has led many Palestinians to question his judgment and leadership. The increased scrutiny of PA finances by the international community, and Arafat's subsequent loss of control over the public purse, have made it difficult for him to continue to secure his position through money.

Palestinian public perceptions of widespread corruption in the PA and its security services have created greater frustration and despair than ever. A survey conducted last month by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research found that 87% of Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank believe that corruption exists in the PA; while two-thirds believe that public officials involved in, or accused of, corruption are often not charged or brought to account. The survey found that 92% support internal and external calls for fundamental political reforms in the PA, but that only 40 % believe the PA is actually carrying out such reforms. Perhaps as importantly, the survey shows alarming concerns among the public: 59% are worried about possible Palestinian infighting after Israel's withdrawal from Gaza; only 30% believe the PA has high capacity to control internal matters after the withdrawal; and only 31% believe life in Gaza will fully resume in an orderly manner. It is these conditions that provided fertile ground for those wishing to challenge to Arafat, and which emboldened them to come out in the open. A similar political challenge is underway in the West Bank, but at a slower pace. The era of the old guard could be coming to an end.

The current crisis will probably weaken Arafat's control and might be followed by further developments in the next 18 months, culminating in making merely nominal his, and the PA's, hold on Gaza. Arafat's control there will most likely be replaced by that of Islamists. In order to be able to gain and consolidate power, warlords and other young leaders will need to strengthen their alliance with the Islamists and to make a deal with Israel in which Israel-which refuses to negotiate its withdrawal with Arafat's PA-agrees to full withdrawal in return for full cessation of violence from the Gaza Strip. In the short term, Israel may gain some peace and quiet, but this will not be sustainable in the long run. Israel, which will continue to occupy the West Bank and Arab East Jerusalem, will find itself facing a much stronger foe across the Gaza border, and violence will return. In the meanwhile, the Islamists will probably become stronger and will test the nationalists when the first opportunity presents itself. Infighting between the nationalists and the Islamists could signal the beginning of a long-term internal conflict and the threat of civil war. No one stands to gain; all-Palestinians, Israelis, and the international community-would be losers.

Only national elections now, before the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza, can help the Palestinians avert this outcome. Elections would help them get rid of the old guard, and thereby provide the young guard with the means to give up their arms without losing political power. Indeed, elections will provide the latter with the opportunity to translate their popular base into political empowerment. Elections would also weaken Arafat's authoritarianism (even if he is re-elected), integrate the Islamists into the political system, and bring about a governing coalition of young guards and independents. Only elections can bring an end to the current political anarchy, chaos, lawlessness, and political paralysis. Only elections can make the Palestinian political system truly accountable.

The ability of the international community to influence the chaotic conditions in the Palestinian areas today is not great. Only by facilitating Palestinian national elections can Israel, the U.S., and others contribute to immediate stability, to the creation of a democratic Palestine with a more accountable leadership, and to a more peaceful Israeli-Palestinian relationship.

Mr. Shikaki is director of the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research in Ramallah.