Lawlessness in Gaza

July 20, 2004

HOW DID Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat quell public unrest over corruption among the leadership of his governing authority? By appointing a cousin to a security post in the Gaza Strip, a move that provoked more outrage over corrupt practices, which then forced the Palestinian leader to rescind his decision. As Palestinian factions protested in Gaza, the Palestinian prime minister, ensconced on the West Bank, submitted his resignation over the weekend because of what he characterized as "a state of chaos."

Is there trouble in Palestine? Absolutely.

Should anyone be surprised? No.

The "chaos," as Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia aptly described it, erupted over corruption in the Palestinian Authority and Mr. Arafat's bungled attempt to address it. Mr. Arafat's refusal to relinquish any power has sabotaged attempts at reform, a key element to a resumption of U.S.-sponsored peace talks and a negotiated end to Israel's occupation.

The internecine unrest in Gaza highlights the lack of alternative leaders or a viable opposition to Mr. Arafat. It also underscores the breakdown of political and civil society, a situation accelerated and amplified by the current Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Palestinians have little respect for their leaders, but they have no means to evict them. Palestinian elections won't become a reality until the United States feels confident it knows who might succeed Mr. Arafat.

Palestinians are fed up with the occupation -- Israel has responded to suicide bombers and terrorist attacks with punishing measures that have killed hundreds of Palestinians and devastated their economy and way of life.

But without potent, credible leadership, Palestinians can't negotiate a peace deal with the Israelis. That leaves militants to dominate the struggle.

A decade ago, Mr. Arafat brought Palestinians to a place where independence seemed possible. The Oslo peace process failed, not least because of Mr. Arafat's refusal to accept a deal from the previous Israeli government. The Palestinian leader's acceptance of violence as a means to end the Israeli occupation has exacerbated his people's plight; his refusal to cede power is having the same effect, and history will reflect that.

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's proposal to remove troops and settlers from the Gaza Strip, while revolutionary for him, is not the sole answer to the Palestinian problem. The Bush administration can't continue to sit on the sidelines while this conflict consumes both players. The Palestinian people need the means to provide for their families. They need the strength and stability to focus on their future, and a sense of security that would enable them to resist the political status quo while rejecting violence as a means to overthrow it and the Israeli occupation.

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