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As Gaza Shows, Post-Arafat Leaders Will Have Hands Full

Times Staff Writer

Police chiefs are kidnapped and ambushed. Armed gangs fight one another in the streets. Rioters torch government buildings. Prisoners are killed in custody.

Long before the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat fell gravely ill last month, his ability to govern was steadily crumbling. The Gaza Strip and parts of the West Bank had descended into a kind of chaos, ruled haphazardly by competing warlords, rival factions and tribal clans engulfed in power struggles and turf battles and eclipsing the official Palestinian Authority.

For the 1.3 million Palestinian residents of Gaza, especially, Arafat had been a leader missing in action for quite some time. With poverty and repression mind numbingly acute here, Palestinians have turned increasingly to militias, tribal justice and Islamic fundamentalism for security, leadership and sustenance.

Gaza provides a glimpse of what the next Palestinian leadership will confront in attempting to unite disparate groups, subdue rebels, restore law and order, and avert wider violence.

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“It’s organized chaos ... laissez faire,” said Ziad abu Amr, a Palestinian legislator from Gaza City and frequent critic of Arafat and the Palestinian Authority he led.

Most institutions of state have all but collapsed here, in part from Israeli military incursions during the 4-year-old Palestinian uprising, and in part from Palestinian political paralysis. In the last two years, schools and hospitals have continued to operate, for example, but there has been a near-total breakdown in public security.

“The government has no role in maintaining law and order,” Abu Amr said. “The people are relying on customs and tradition and the principle of mutual deterrence: If I attack somebody, I should expect retaliation.”

The Gaza Strip, a 24-mile-long piece of desert squeezed against the sea, was always desolate, but it has sunk deeper into despair, a crowded patchwork of dense refugee camps and urban centers with unfinished apartment buildings. The number of people too poor to buy food and who are fed by the United Nations -- not by the Palestinian Authority -- has grown tenfold in Gaza and the West Bank in recent years, and now encompasses half the strip’s population.

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Most Palestinians in Gaza do not rely on the 14 or more government security services functioning here; in fact, agents from these services are often the ones committing violent acts in the course of turf battles. Instead, clans have been forming militias and arming members as a means of self-defense, said residents who were interviewed recently.

Angry that he could not get his car repaired late one night last week, Ayad abu Amra calmly leveled his Kalashnikov assault rifle and fired a single shot into the heart of mechanic Ahed Bessaiso, witnesses said, leaving him to die in the street as three of his young children watched.

A Bessaiso relative, Sakhar, is the governor of the northern Gaza Strip and a prominent founding member of Arafat’s Fatah political faction. Yet when family members sought justice, they did not turn to their government or its institutions. Supporters took to the streets, burned tires and demanded revenge. Then the family submitted the matter to a group of tribal leaders to resolve the dispute.

Abu Amra, the alleged killer, serves in the Preventive Security Service, one of the many police and paramilitary forces that Arafat created; the alleged weapon was government issue. Under pressure, the preventive security force agreed to arrest Abu Amra, but then the prison police refused to take him into custody because they didn’t think they could keep him safe in jail. A number of inmates lately have been attacked and killed by vigilantes.

The clans then designated a group of “notables” to mediate between the Abu Amra and Bessaiso families. Sakhar Bessaiso said his family wanted Abu Amra to be sentenced to death.

In the meantime, male members of the family have armed themselves. “I bought this day before yesterday,” said Mohammed Bessaiso, the dead man’s brother, brandishing a black Beretta.

“Families are buying weapons to protect themselves from members of the security services!” Sakhar Bessaiso, 60, said.

“This is madness. It is an astonishing situation,” he added, rubbing green worry beads against his smooth forehead.

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The Bessaiso men were seated late Tuesday night in white plastic chairs in the garden of the family patriarch’s home, surrounded by a hedge of hibiscus. It was not a proper mourning tent, they said, because they were waiting for justice before completing the rituals.

The resurgence of tribal justice is another sign of the deterioration of the Palestinian Authority. Although its use is common in the Middle East, the Palestinian nation-in-waiting was supposed to rely on its government-run court system.

Before the current intifada, or uprising, courts were beginning to work, however fitfully, and the security services were beginning to organize. “Now we have militias for the families, militias for the political parties, militias for the trade unions,” Sakhar Bessaiso said.

“Mosques are divided, streets are divided, schools are divided ... because there is no political will,” he added. “There is no political leadership.”

Turmoil at the rank-and-file level isn’t surprising given the turmoil above. Commanders of the various security agencies are locked in a bloody competition that has gained steam since the summer -- fueled by Arafat’s political limitations and failing health and the prospect that Israel will withdraw from the Gaza Strip next year.

The battle lines are drawn in diverse directions: Old guard Palestinian cronies of Arafat are pitted against a younger generation impatient to rule; Islamists who have filled the void left by the decimation of the Palestinian Authority are demanding their share of power.

One police chief, Gen. Ghazi Jabali, was kidnapped in broad daylight in July; a week later rioters torched police stations and seized government buildings in protest over Arafat’s choice of his cousin Moussa as the new security chief for Gaza. Other top security officials were kidnapped or ambushed in August and September. Moussa Arafat survived a car-bomb assassination attempt last month.

Mohammed Dahlan, a Gaza strongman and former head of the Preventive Security Service positioning himself to take over the security agencies, is thought to be fomenting much of the violence. He is aligned profitably with several important Gazan businessmen, diplomats say.

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The top security commanders’ thirst for power has meant that they have little time for protecting the Palestinian people, said Eyad Sarraj, a prominent Gazan psychiatrist who runs a mental health center. They are all products of Arafat’s design, he noted, but with Arafat out of the picture, they have become Frankensteins.

“Arafat never committed himself to the building of institutions or to the rule of law,” Sarraj said. “He created all these sultans of power, always under his umbrella, with him as the ultimate arbitrator. He tried to keep everyone loyal ... and the result today is you have this anarchy.”

The situation is likely to be exacerbated by Arafat’s death -- the stakes suddenly in stark focus.

“The Palestinian street has a right to be worried,” Maj. Gen. Abdel Razek Majaydeh, head of the Palestinian National Security Forces, said in an interview. But he said authorities would attempt to safeguard the public.

Perhaps alarmed at the disarray in Gaza, Majaydeh this week inaugurated a 250-member task force to intervene in disputes between police and Palestinian factions. The force has a new building and uniform, he said, but no commanding officer yet.


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