“My first reaction is: God bless his soul,” answered George W. Bush when asked to comment on the news that Yasir Arafat had “passed away.” The obituary was premature–the Palestinian leader was in a coma, and died the following week. It is unclear whether Arafat’s death will bring his people and the region closer to Bush’s wish, “a free Palestinian state that’s at peace with Israel.”
Palestinians in the occupied territories have met their leader’s sudden mortality with stoicism. There were no mass vigils outside his battle-scarred headquarters in Ramallah in the days leading up to his death, no mass displays of grief the day after. Most people are getting on with the routine of their lives–or what passes for routine in the garrison realities of the West Bank and Gaza. But there is fear over what will come after him.
Mechanisms for a peaceful transition are theoretically in place. The current speaker of the Palestinian Parliament, Rawhi Fattouh, is supposed to become president of the Palestinian Authority until new elections are held (within sixty days, according to the law), with the most likely candidate being the present Prime Minister, Ahmed Qurei (a k a Abu Ala). Chairmanship of the Palestine Liberation Organization will probably pass to its current general secretary and the former prime minister, Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen). In practice, too, the two men had already taken up the reins of power, with Abbas stepping in for Arafat in the PLO bodies and Qurei in the PA. The bigger question is whether a leadership with these two at the helm can govern in a post-Arafat era.
For now the answer is yes, says Palestinian labor minister and analyst Ghassan Khatib. Abbas and Qurei are “accepted by everyone or at least could be accepted by everyone.” But, he adds, their true mettle will be tested when and if they attempt to make strategic decisions over reform, the intifada and the peace process. On reform they will likely face obstruction from the “old guard” Fatah leadership, particularly the heads of the unpopular PA security forces, who rightly see the end of the Arafat era as a prelude to their own, and would resist any diminution of their power. In the worst case this could mean the collapse of the security forces into de facto militias, grouped around locale, patronage and this or that security warlord. The disintegration, marked by occasional kidnappings and armed confrontations, is already evident. In Gaza, forces loyal to the former PA security minister, Muhammad Dahlan, routinely clash with the PA’s national security forces, headed by Arafat’s nephew, Musa.