The Palestinian national movement is going through one of its worst crises as Prime Minister-designate Ahmed Qureia attempts to form a government.
Qureia, also known as Abu Ala, has tried to form a Cabinet four times -- the most recent attempt was to form an emergency Cabinet -- but has failed. On Thursday, indicating he had had enough, Abu Ala asked Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat to relieve him of his task.
Official Palestinian sources at Arafat's headquarters in the West Bank town of Ramallah said Friday Abu Ala later withdrew his resignation "because he (Arafat) trusts him and his Cabinet, and can never accept Abu Ala's resignation in such critical circumstances."
Arafat swore in an emergency Cabinet earlier this week following Israel threats to "remove" him from power.
Nabil Abu Rudeineh, a top aide to Arafat, said the Palestinian leader "would never accept Abu Ala's resignation," adding the prime minister-designate and his Cabinet were still "gaining the trust of President Arafat."
Abu Rudeineh said Abu Ala would get the approval of the Palestinian Legislative Council during a special session that expected to be Saturday.
Part of the trouble is that Arafat's Fatah Party is so fractious. There is friction between the younger generation and the old guard, which is clinging to power; there is tension between those Palestinians who grew up and lived under Israeli rule in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, and those who came from abroad, mainly Tunisia. Ministers in the former government of Mahmoud Abbas, or Abu Mazen, are now out of power and don't like it.
The struggle is especially important because of Arafat's health problems. One news report this week said he had a heart attack and another said he had stomach cancer.
Arafat has no obvious heir; he nurtured none.
Palestinian politicians "are smelling that Arafat may be going. There are rumors about his illness, so (they) all are trying to improve their positions (for the race that will follow his departure)," said Israeli Col. (res.) Shalom Harari, a former Defense Ministry senior adviser on Palestinian affairs who is now a fellow at the International Policy Institute for Counter-Terrorism in Herzliya, north of Tel Aviv.
The Palestinians are in a unique political situation. Unlike some other Arab countries, such as Syria, they do not have a repressive dictatorship and fear of its secret service.
Arafat and the Legislative Council members were elected almost a decade ago. They have political parties, people express their opinions, know how a democracy operates -- they see it in Israel -- but they don't have democratic traditions.
The result is chaotic. Arafat used to boast of what he called "democratiyat al-bandukiya," or democracy of the gun.
"Now he has it," Harari said.
The fundamentalist Hamas and Islamic Jihad, the leftist Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine and the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine, all have guns. So does Fatah and its renegade groups.
Palestinian analysts say they expect an internal conflict in Arafat's Fatah. After his departure, they say, younger Fatah members, veterans -- some of who are in the Central Committee - and the chiefs of the different security apparatuses that were until now taking instructions from Arafat personally will be fighting each other.
They say groups like Hamas, Islamic Jihad and the leftist elements of the Palestine Liberation Organization will watch the fight from the sidelines.
Israeli experts point to the increased lawlessness in Palestinian society.
"In every city, you find groups of masked men and this eats the Palestinian society from the inside," Harari said.
Education and health services are working, municipalities are functioning, water, electricity and sanitation services are available and main streets are swept. There is no functioning legal system and no central government, however.
"Each person must receive protection from his clan," Harari said.
Merchants in the West Bank town of Nablus, for example, need a private militia or pay protection money. Almost every week, groups fire at each other.
"The clan has become the center rather than a central government," Harari added. "There is no understanding of what is a state."
Several recent incidents illustrate this.
He recalled an incident in which a district governor went to settle a dispute with another clan using his jeeps and guns. Several bystanders were shot.
Several months ago, members of Fatah's Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade kidnapped Jenin's Gov. Haider Rashid in broad daylight, accusing him of corruption. They released him the next day only after Arafat intervened.
One of the most dramatic incidents occurred in front of international television cameras at the entrance to the PLC in Ramallah. Fatah men armed with Kalashnikovs blocked then Prime Minister Abu Mazen's way to the chamber to address legislators. Abbas resigned.
Abu Mazen, and now Abu Ala, know there can be only one source of control over firearms, but they are helpless.
Hamas and other groups don't want to part with their weapons, saying they need them to fight Israel. Palestinian leaders fear an attempt to disarm the militants would lead to civil war.
The problem lies also with Arafat who established several rival security organizations and does not want to relinquish control.
Mohammed Dahlan, who was minister of State for Security Affairs in Abu Mazen's government, found himself hemmed in. He would reportedly issue an order to his men in Gaza and learn that minutes later Arafat gave his confidant, Gen. Abdel Razak Majayda, the head of the Public Security Forces there, a contradictory order.
The Preventive Security, police, and the internal security forces in Gaza answered to Dahlan. Force 17, the Naval Police, the military intelligence (headed by Mousa Arafat) and the security intelligence (headed by Amin al-Hindi) had a direct line to the Palestinian leader.
Abu Ala's candidate for Interior minister, Gen. Nasr Yousuf, sought to control all arms, but Arafat did not want this and the issue stymied the formation of a new Cabinet.
A compromise proposal reportedly suggested Yousuf has three deputies: Majayda; Gen. Haj Ismail Jaber, who heads the Public Security forces in the West Bank; and al-Hindi. All are Arafat loyalists.
Yousuf wanted the PLC to back his appointment.
He wanted "another source of legitimacy," ICT Senior Research Fellow Yohanan Tzoreff told United Press International.
That has not happened. Thursday's session was postponed and Yousuf did not take part in a swearing-in ceremony with Arafat and did not assume office. Eventually other ministers joined his demand.
The result is that there is no government. Abu Mazen and his ministers were supposed to serve in a caretaker government until a new Cabinet was ready to take over, but that did not happen.
"There is no authority. There is nothing," Tzoreff said. "There is no direction, no goal. ... (The desire for) revenge became the engine driving the intifada."
As the "road map" for peace and the hudna, or temporary calm, collapsed, Palestinian attacks and alerts of attacks on Israel increased. An Islamic Jihad suicide bomber blew herself up in Haifa last Saturday killing 20 people. A Fatah bomber Thursday blew himself up on the Israeli side of the District Coordination Office in Tulkarim. Several would-be suicide bombers were arrested.
Israel responded by stepping up its security measures. On Friday, at least six Palestinians were killed in a fierce gun battle that broke out after Israeli tanks, backed by helicopter gunships, raided a refugee camp near Rafah.
"The next suicide (attack) will happen," an Israeli military source Thursday told foreign correspondents on condition he not be identified by name or title. "On the ground we see Hamas, the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, Fatah continuing preparations to launch more attacks and it is a matter of time until they succeed."
The army has recalled paratroopers from leave, suspended courses and sent its cadets to guard duties. Women soldiers were sent to check Palestinian women at crossing points, and Palestinian traffic was banned on all roads in the Israeli controlled territories of the West Bank.
No end is yet in sight. Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon never wanted to negotiate a political settlement as long as violence continues. Israel is boycotting Arafat and its officials refuse to see foreign dignitaries who visit the Palestinian leader. The United States seems to have other priorities so at the moment there is no progress toward a negotiated settlement.
To where does this lead?
Arafat commands such sweeping support among his people that no Palestinian could operate without his backing. There is no other leader on the horizon.
At the same time, he cannot just wish Abu Ala away. Unlike Abu Mazen and Dahlan, whom the United States and Israel reportedly forced on Arafat, Abu Ala is Arafat's handpicked candidate for prime minister. If this effort to form a Cabinet fails, "responsibility will also lie on Arafat," Tzoreff said.
(Joshua Brilliant reported from Tel Aviv, Israel; Saud Abu Ramadan from Gaza.)