Middle East: `In the hands of Allah`

Concern for the health of Yasser Arafat has produced a struggle for power and for the leadership of the Palestinian people. The next generation lacks the credentials of the founder of the PLO but control could pass to a coterie of colonels, perhaps with a civilian figurehead.

The World Today Published 1 January 1998 Updated 7 December 2018 4 minute READ

On a recent visit to India, Yasser Arafat’s hosts were taken aback by the visible deterioration of the Palestinian leader’s health. A senior Indian official remarked, ‘It looks as though he’s come here to say good bye to all his friends.’

From Delhi airport Arafat flew to Cairo, which he visits regularly, ostensibly to consult his friend and ally, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak; but the real purpose behind these frequent trips to Egypt is medical check ups at the Ma’adi military hospital.

Arafat’s health has become a major preoccupation of Middle East policy makers like President Bill Clinton who fear his departure will trigger a bloody war of succession among his lieutenants. Israel could then find itself forced to re-occupy the West Bank and Gaza Strip to protect the 150,000 Jewish settlers and prevent the unrest from spreading across the Green Line.

Alarmed entourage

Concern about Arafat has surfaced following public appearances in which his red eyed exhaustion was underlined by the continuous trembling of his lower lip, left arm and leg. Add to this two recent occasions when he fainted, first during a meeting with the foreign minister of Qatar and the second in a closed door session with his advisers in the West Bank town of Ramallah.

His alarmed entourage has responded by trying to enforce an informal censorship of television close ups, intensifying speculation that the Palestinian president is seriously ill. An Arab confidante who met him recently says he would be surprised if he survives 1998. Arafat’s personal physician, who happens to be the minister of health in neighbouring Jordan, admits his symptoms resemble Parkinson’s Disease, but dismisses this ‘differential diagnosis.’

‘He is suffering from a benign positional tremor that causes exhaustion says the Harvard educated Dr Ashraf Al Kurd. The Jordanian minister confirms he has been summoned several times to Arafat’s home across the border in Gaza, but he says none of the calls were urgent. He refuses to disclose the nature of Arafat’s medication, but confirms his patient has been on a course of blood thinning drugs since his private aircraft crashed in the Libyan desert in 1992.

‘The trembling started in his left hand long before the crash’, explains Dr Al Kurd. ‘Its a condition that starts in one hand and may spread to affect different parts of the body. Its not associated with mental change, rigidity, or disturbance of gait. It can be relieved by rest, relaxation and alcohol. When he’s rested there is a remarkable difference and he’s almost back to normal.’

Dr Al Kurd blames Palestinian officials for feeding the speculation about Arafat’s health. Some of his anger is directed at Dr Nabil Shaath, the Palestinian minister for international planning and cooperation. ‘Although he’s not a physician, he recently made statements concerning the president’s health’, he told the London based Arabic magazine, Al Majallah. ‘This was a prize for the Israelis who created a storm out of his statements. Arafat’s problem is that all those around him pretend to be doctors.’

Arafat’s 33 year old wife, Suha, also blames her husband’s entourage for the negative reporting about his health. ‘Some Palestinian personalities are already preparing themselves for the succession’, she recently told close friends. ‘They are being helped by Israel, but they will not succeed because the people will never consider them appropriate leaders.’ Her innermost worry, as confided to friends in Europe, is that civil war will consume the Palestinians of Gaza and the West Bank when Arafat passes on.

Mr Palestine

The debate on who could succeed Arafat picked up momentum after the Libyan desert crash. For 24 hours before Arafat was discovered safe and alive there was pandemonium among the Palestinians. The question of his succession was clouded because Arafat – Mr Palestine – has always been a one man show that easily overshadowed the efforts of his nearest rivals. Until the late 1980s there were only two Palestinian officials who could be deemed natural successors.

Salah Khalaf, nom de guerre Abu Iyad, was second in command in the main stream Fatah organisation led by Arafat. His co-equal was Khalil Al Wa z i r, or Abu Jihad, the PLO’s popular minister of defence. Abu Iyad was assassinated by the Abu Nidal terrorist org a nisation in 1991 and Abu Jihad was killed in his Tunis villa by an undercover team of Israeli commandos in 1988.

The absence of these two men, founding fathers along with Arafat of both Fatah and the PLO, cleared the way for Mahmoud Abbas, nom de guerre Abu Mazen, to emerge as Arafat’s chief lieutenant. Abu Mazen, 60, was once the PLO’s ambassador to Moscow and is the architect of the crumbling Oslo Accords. He is considered a moderate negotiator and has good ties with Israel’s Labour Party, as well as with other leftist groups inside Israel. But, unlike Arafat the revol u t i o n a r y, Abu Mazen has no military experience. He holds a history doctorate from Moscow University.

Ambitious rivals

When and if Abu Mazen takes over, he will discover he has to face down the ambition of more than one rival. Foremost among them is the all powerful Colonel Jibril Rajoub, the head of the Palestinian Preventive Security apparatus and ‘sheriff’ of the West Bank. Rajoub, 45, spent 17 years in an Israeli jail before he was released in 1985. Three years later he was deported to Lebanon. From there he made his way to Tunis where Arafat appointed him his top adviser for the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Rajoub is renowned for his brutal disregard for human rights and is held accountable for the deaths in custody of at least half a dozen Palestinians. Twenty thousand armed Palestinians serve under his direct command as members of Fatah and the Preventive Security Force.

Arafat has tried to clip the wings of his protege. Two commissions of inquiry have been set up to review Rajoub’s conduct following repeated complaints of his high handed behaviour. One commission was created after a public shouting match between Rajoub and a senior PLO official Sakher Habash, whom Rajoub threatened to ‘trample with my shoes’. A second commission is looking into claims that Rajoub betrayed two members of the Hamas islamic movement by facilitating their kidnapping by Israeli security.

Rajoub’s counterpart in the Gaza Strip, Colonel Mohammed Dahlan, is also building a power base, but, unlike Rajoub, he has publicly stated he is not interested in Arafat’s job. A third Palestinian security official, whose name is also being floated as a potential candidate, is Ghazi Jabali, commander of the blue uniformed Palestinian police force in Gaza and the West Bank. Israel has issued an arrest warrant for him and accused him of instructing three West Bank policemen to carry out an armed attack on Jewish settlers.

Coterie of colonels

Some Palestinian analysts foresee a scenario where three or four heads of security and intelligence organisations could join hands in a collective leadership chaired by a political figurehead. The nearest parallel cited is of the late Habib Bourgiba, the last president of Tunisia, who ceded power to his security chiefs in the final years of his rule.

If this pattern was repeated among the Palestinians, it throws up intriguing new possibilities about who could be brought into the political loop. One name recently mentioned is of Dr Hanan Ashrawi, the respected Palestinian Minister of Higher Education. Her gender and christian pedigree rule her out for the top job in the macho political culture of the Palestinians. However if real power was being exercised behind the scenes by a coterie of colonels, Dr Ashrawi could be a very respectable and acceptable successor.

Similar considerations of real politik apply even to someone like Abu Mazen who could so easily find himself vulnerable to the will of colonels and generals – with regiments of armed supporters at their beck and call – because he has no popular base on which to draw for legitimacy.

The unofficial Palestinian constitution is based on the Egyptian model, which allows the Speaker of Parliament to take over if the president dies or is incapacitated. This opens a window of opportunity for the banker turned politician Ahmed Qreia, or Abu Al’a as he is known to his friends and admirers, who could find himself in Arafat’s shoes pending elections.

Direct elections for a new president would have to be held after 60 days, but that would allow Abu Al’a, architect of the secret pre-Oslo negotiations with Israel, plenty of time to consolidate his position.

As the fighting around Arafat intensifies, Mr Palestine remains unperturbed and determined to have the last laugh. ‘Life and death is in the hands of Allah’, Arafat regularly tells his wife. ‘Death will always find you wherever you go.’