Despite 10 days of crisis in Gaza, Arafat's position remains strong

Political turmoil leaves few marks on symbol of drive for nationhood


RAMALLAH, West Bank - Yasser Arafat, the politician, has had a rough 10 days. Gunmen turned their weapons on his security forces in the Gaza Strip, his prime minister submitted his resignation, and parliament sent him a rare rebuke.

But Arafat, the icon, appears to have suffered only minor scratches.

The recent turmoil has displayed an easily overlooked truth about Arafat's place among the Palestinians. His policies have become fair game for criticism and expressions of despair, yet he remains the enduring symbol of Palestinian aspirations to full nationhood. Even as violence flared in the streets of Gaza, his staunchest Palestinian critics were not making explicit calls for his removal.

Many of the sharpest complaints about corruption and ineffectiveness in the Palestinian leadership have come not from rivals, but from within Arafat's Fatah movement, the core of his support. Almost anywhere else, this would signal that a leader is in trouble.

Still, many Palestinian and Israeli political experts agree that there is no serious threat to Arafat's position.

Arafat and his prime minister, Ahmed Qureia, planned to meet today amid hints that they were patching up their dispute and that Qureia might be willing to reconsider his resignation, which was delivered July 17.

Qureia said he was quitting because of the chaos in Gaza and the disarray in the security agencies, and he has expressed frustration at the limited powers allotted to the prime minister under Arafat.

In Gaza, militants linked to Fatah have carried out kidnappings and battled members of the Palestinian security forces. The fighting embarrassed Arafat and reflected his inability to rein in the factions in Gaza, where Israel's government says it intends to pull out soldiers and settlers. Yet the militants identified the problem as the corrupt security chiefs appointed by Arafat, not Arafat himself.

The militants, from Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, say they are waging a vigilante campaign against corruption while remaining loyal to Arafat.

And when Palestinian lawmakers gathered in Ramallah to address the crisis, they, too, opted for an indirect approach. They said Arafat should accept Qureia's resignation and appoint a new government with expanded powers to fight lawlessness. In effect, they turned to Arafat as the man who could correct the problem, not the one who had helped create it.

"We have a saying in Arabic: The man sees the wolf but prefers to just follow his tracks," said Salah Tamari, the minister of youth and sports. "Arafat is the wolf, and we should have had the guts to confront him and not just work around him."

Arafat often seems to thrive in times of crisis, embracing his role as a unifying figure for the Palestinians, a people of many competing groups without a state or strong institutions.

Arafat, 74, has seen his powers whittled away in the past few years, and he now presides over a crumbling and impoverished Palestinian Authority. He has found it increasingly difficult to exercise day-to-day leadership, but there is little doubt that his voice would still carry the day on any substantive issue affecting the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

"From his point of view, I'm sure he feels he has survived many crises like this one," said Ziad Abu Amr, a Palestinian legislator and a critic of Arafat. "He can probably outmaneuver his rivals in this crisis, but I'm skeptical that he is prepared to make any real changes."

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