A sure sign of the depths of the Middle East's political troubles is the way it see-saws between brutal autocratic control and no less brutal anarchy. It's harder to say which is worse, but possibly anarchy is, for autocracy at least has some rules while anarchy lacks even that. Regions currently suffering from severe autocracy include Libya, Syria, Saudi Arabia, and Iran. Anarchic areas include significant parts of Sudan, Lebanon, Iraq, and Afghanistan.
Now we see the same process underway in areas nominally under control of the Palestinian Authority. Indeed, one of the central problems with Palestinian-Israeli diplomacy is the lack of authority in the Palestinian Authority. Dan Meridor, one of Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon's key advisors on this issue, has noted that "there is no address, no leader, no partner, no interlocutor on the other side." Meridor says of Yasir Arafat, the PA's leader, that "he doesn't control anything anymore." Meridor goes on to point out the "impossible situation" this places Israel in. "Suppose we want to give Jenin back to the Palestinians and take our soldiers out, which we evidently want to do. We can't do that if there is nobody on the other side to assume responsibility and ensure that nobody launches rockets and suicide bombers against us." He called this leadership vacuum "the most important link in the chain," and bemoaned the fact that no one seems to see it.
In a similar spirit, when asked who was in charge of Gaza, the former head of the Palestinian preventive security forces there, Muhammad Dahlan, replied "Right now, only God is in charge." That things work as well as they do sometimes feels like a minor miracle. "Sometimes I wonder how we are functioning at all without a central government," observed one Gazan to The New York Times. "The young guys carrying guns are dominating the street. Various groups are all trying to impose their own agenda, and no one really has control." (March 10, 2003)
Feb. 3, 2004 update: A Reuters dispatch reporting on the gang-dominated scene in Nablus gives a sense of the growing anarchy. While many Palestinians blame this chaos on Israel, "for many the heart of the matter is lawless Palestinian governance, a system with no one in charge below a remote President Yasir Arafat."
Some of the dead fell in feuds over flourishing rackets in stolen cars, drugs and extortion. Some were "collaborators" said to have steered Israeli forces toward wanted militants in the city of 150,000, the historical hub of Palestinian nationalism. But the majority have been cases of mistaken identity or people caught in the middle of fighting between rival gangs. Amneh Abu Hijleh, 37, entered a pharmacy to buy cough syrup for her infant daughter only to be shot dead in a botched abduction. Firas Aghbar, 13, was killed when he walked into a gang battle on his way to the barber for a birthday trim. …
Distinctions between nationalist militant and criminal gang activities have blurred as Fatah has splintered into armed groups, many spun off from Palestinian security services disabled by Israeli offensives in the West Bank. A regional Fatah official who asked not to be named said 90 percent of gang lawlessness could be traced to people still on a Palestinian Authority payroll.
Israeli authorities see more of this pattern after Yasir Arafat dies and I expect they are right.
Feb. 9, 2004 update: National Public Radio ran today an interesting report on this same subject, which included these quotations from Palestinians:
National security does not really exist in [Gaza], because the authority is not really in charge of the order of the law here. There is a big increase in the level of the crimes like killing and stealing and raping and kidnapping.
I would say that the Palestinian Authority is also in trouble with the Palestinian people because of such incidents, because many people are being killed or kidnapped or robbed, you know, and we all are asking for security. We are all accusing the government of not doing anything.
Mar. 1, 2004 update:The Washington Post carries a report today under the title "Palestinian Authority Broke and In Disarray: Collapse Is 'Real Possibility.'" It finds that "the Palestinian Authority is broke, politically fractured, riddled with corruption, unable to provide security for its own people and seemingly unwilling to crack down on terrorist attacks against Israel" and includes this passage:
Three weeks ago, a gunfight erupted inside the Gaza City police headquarters between officers under Arafat's appointed police chief and security forces aligned with former Palestinian security chief Mohammed Dahlan, now an Arafat rival. One police officer was killed and 11 others were wounded.
"What has begun to be more visible is the beginning of the breakdown of law and order," said Karen Abu Zayd, deputy commissioner general for the U.N. Relief and Works Agency in the Gaza Strip. "All the groups have their own militias, and they are very organized. It's factions trying to exercise their powers."
Mar. 2, 2004 update: The Associated Press reports that Israel's chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Moshe Yaalon, told a committee of the Israeli parliament today that Palestinian society "is rife with internal power struggles, maybe we can even call it anarchy."
Mar. 7, 2004 update: A Cox News Service report today by Joshua Mitnick has a small glimmer of good news, pointing to a realization by Palestinians that they bear some responsibility for the spreading chaos:
Law and order in Palestinian cities has all but disappeared during 41 months of conflict and the reoccupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip by Israeli forces. In many places, Palestinian police and security forces have been fragmented or disappeared altogether. The power vacuum has been filled by armed and anonymous Palestinians who are enforcing their own rules.
The lawlessness has exposed the internal divisions of Palestinian society and government. Pitted against one another are rival security agencies, militant splinter groups and some members of powerful families in the cities. And as the disorder spreads, Palestinian intellectuals and politicians are increasingly looking past Israel as the usual scapegoat and admitting they share a part of the blame. …
"People are reverting to tribal laws," said Hasan Khreisheh, a Palestinian legislator. "This is not a good situation, because in civilized countries, all things should be carried out by courts, not by returning to families and revenge."
Apr. 14, 2004 update: Analyzing internal Palestinian violence, the Jerusalem-based Palestinian Human Rights Monitoring Group (PHRMG) finds that inter-Palestinian strife has caused 16 percent, or one-sixth, of Palestinian civilian deaths in the 10-year period from 1993 to 2003. The Jerusalem Post reports today on a report titled "The Intrafada: or The Chaos of the Weapons," funded by the Finnish government, which finds that as "weapons possession has become socially legitimized in Palestinian society," it has been accompanied by the absence of the rule of law, as well as the inability of the central authority to control and regulate the use and carrying of weapons. Founded in 1996 due to deteriorating human rights under the newly-established Palestinian Authority, the PHRMG is headed by Bassem Eid.
Apr. 15, 2004 update: A poll conducted by the Gaza-based General Institute for Information, and reported in today's Jerusalem Post, shows that 94 percent of Palestinians believe there is a state of lawlessness and chaos in Palestinian Authority-controlled territories. And this: just 29 percent of the respondents blame the Israeli occupation for the failure of the PA to enforce law and order. (The poll of 860 Palestinians living in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip has a margin error of 3.5%. It was conducted between March 29 and April 1, 2004.)
June 10, 2004 update: Elements of the Palestinian Authority itself have started acknowledging the prevalent anarchy, according to a report by the The Jerusalem Post's brave and talented Khaled Abu Toameh. He reports on a meeting in Ramallah yesterday, initiated by local businessmen and shopkeepers following incidents in the Ramallah area in which armed gangsters shot and killed two young men and went on a rampage against commercial establishments. Abu Toameh cites three PA officials at that meeting:
Sakher Habash, a top Fatah official and close aide to PA Chairman Yasir Arafat, noted that because of the lack of proper police authority forces many businesses to pay extortion money to armed groups: "There are some who are trying to spread chaos and tamper with private and public property. This calls for a united stance to confront this dangerous phenomenon, which threatens the entire society."
Mustafa Issa, PA governor of Ramallah and Al-Bireh, estimated there are 1,200 unlicensed and stolen vehicles in the two cities and admitted that the PA security forces had failed in their mission to enforce law and order.
Saleh Raf'at, secretary-general of the Palestinian Democratic Union Party, primarily blamed PA security forces and Fatah "activists" for the anarchy and lawlessness. Discussing the armed gangs which roam the streets of many West Bank cities, Raf'at paid his respect to anyone "who carries a rifle to fight against the occupation. But these weapons lose their sanctity when they are used for murder and intimidation. Anyone who uses the weapons for unholy purposes is a highway thief. … If we don't start dealing with this problem at once, we will destroy our internal Palestinian home."
July 13, 2004 update: Terje Roed-Larsen, the U.N. Middle East envoy, offered some pungent comments on the Palestinian Authority and its increasing anarchy. Here is the Associated Press account of his briefing today to the Security Council:
"Clashes and showdowns between branches of Palestinian security forces are now common in the Gaza Strip, where Palestinian Authority legal authority is receding fast in the face of the mounting power of arms, money and intimidation," Roed-Larsen said. "The perceived Palestinian Authority abdication of responsibility" has led many residents of Rafah in southern Gaza to take matters into their own hands, including establishing a checkpoint to prevent Palestinian officials from entering the city or crossing into Egypt, he said.
The security problem has also spread to the West Bank. "Lawlessness and gang rule is becoming common in Nablus," and "Jericho is actually becoming the only Palestinian city with a functioning police," he said. The U.N. envoy stressed that "this collapse of authority cannot be attributed only to the Israeli incursions and operations inside Palestinian towns. The Palestinian Authority is in deep distress, and is in real danger of collapse."
July 14, 2004 update: Roed-Larsen's comments prompted an immediate response from his friends in the Palestinian Authority:
The top U.N. envoy to the Middle East will no longer be welcome in the Palestinian territories after he harshly criticized Yasser Arafat, a senior adviser to the Palestinian president said Wednesday. "Terje Roed-Larsen's statement is not objective. As of today he is an unwelcome person in Palestinian territories," Nabil Abu Rdainah told Reuters, referring to remarks by the envoy at the United Nations Tuesday.
July 16, 2004 update: The Associated Press reports that Palestinian terrorists from the Jenin Martyrs' Brigade, part of Al-Fatah, today seized Gaza's police chief, Ghazi al-Jabali, "after ambushing his convoy and took him to an unknown location." Jabali was traveling on Gaza City's coastal road when several cars cut off his convoy and armed Palestinians put him in another vehicle and sped away. This is not Jabali's first brush with anarchy: in March 2004, terrorists fired at his office and in April, an explosion destroyed the front entrance of his Gaza home.
July 17, 2004 update: It gets even more interesting. Here is a report from Britain's Press Association on the fawda:
The spate of Gaza kidnappings began around midday yesterday when gunmen abducted Palestinian chief of police Ghazi Jabali after attacking his vehicle in an ambush. Witnesses said the militants smashed the car window, pulled Jabali out and sped off in the direction of the Bureij refugee camp. Hours later, Jabali was released and driven in a convoy of Palestinian security officers and officials of Arafat's Fatah party to his office in Gaza City, where he greeted supporters in his uniform and black beret.
A group from the little-known Jenin Martyrs Brigade claimed responsibility for the abduction. But other militants said the gunmen were members of a militia that Jabali himself had created to back his bid for power after the Israelis leave Gaza.
Several new militant organisations have appeared in Gaza, many of them grouped under the umbrella of the Palestinian Popular Resistance Committee. The committee, which has no clear political agenda or ideology, was pressing for more jobs in the police force for its members.
Shortly after Jabali's release Col Khaled Abu Aloula, director of military co-ordination in the southern part of the territory, was taken from his car as he returned to Gaza City from Khan Younis. Palestinian security officials said the kidnappers were Palestinian policemen who had recently been sacked. The officials said that earlier in the day Aloula had refused their request to help reinstate them. In a brief telephone conversation with The Associated Press later yesterday, Aloula said he was being well treated.
As a result of this anarchy, "Prime Minister" Ahmed Qureia offered his resignation and Yasir Arafat declared a state of emergency in the Palestinian Authority.
Comment: After brewing for a half year, the epidemic of kidnappings and other anarchic actions has finally reached the political level, contributing to Arafat's loss of credibility even among some of his more ardent supporters.
Aug. 2, 2004 update: "Unprecedented chaos" is now spreading to the West Bank, notes Agence France-Presse, after supporters of the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades in Jenin torched local offices of the Palestinian Authority's security services and the district governor over the weekend, then some 5,000 people demonstrators took to the streets in solidarity. Ahmed Qorei, the PA's so-called prime minister, hoped West Bankers would prevent the chaos seen last month in the Gaza from spreading to the West Bank. "If this chaos reaches the West Bank, then we will be on the verge of an unprecedented and unacceptable disaster."
Oct. 18, 2004 update: "Hundreds of Palestinians demonstrated in the north West Bank city of Tulkarm Monday to demand that the Palestinian Authority put an end to armed gangs roaming the streets and terrorizing the population," reports Khaled Abu Toameh in the Jerusalem Post. "The protest came following a shooting attack on the home of Tulkarm Mayor Mahmoud Jallad and the killing of two young men by armed gangsters." Abu Toameh quotes one resident saying that "The situation is very dangerous because armed gangs control the streets. Many of the thugs are involved in different forms of crime."
Oct. 20, 2004 update: The warlords are steadily emerging, according to Sakher Habash, a member of the Fatah Central Committee who accused stated that "The [Palestinian] security forces have become private fiefdoms of their commanders. Instead of being loyal to the Palestinian Authority, the security forces are loyal to their chiefs. President Arafat is trying to contain the situation in order to prevent a civil war." Referring to Mohammed Dahlan, Habash complained that "When one of the security commanders is dismissed from his job, his force remains subordinate to him even if he's not in office. The situation is very serious and I fear that we are heading towards the abyss and that things would get out of control."
Nov. 14, 2004 update: The death of Arafat and the hapless efforts of his minions to succeed him seems like a good moment to close this weblog entry and start a new one, titled "Palestinian Anarchy, Post-Arafat."