Arafat quietly builds his little dictatorship

Palestine's dream of new democracy has quickly turned sour, writes Robert Fisk

YASSER ARAFAT is running a little dictatorship down in Gaza, with the almost total approval of the Israelis and the United States. Under the pretext of stamping out "terrorism" on Israel's behalf, he now has more than 10 competing Palestinian intelligence services under his command, a grand total only exceeded by Arab leaders in Baghdad and Damascus. New press laws have effectively muzzled Palestinian journalists, many of whom have been "invited" to security headqarters in Gaza City for after- dark meetings with plain-clothes intelligence officers who liaise with the Israeli security services.

Ostensibly aimed at Hamas and the Islamic Jihad Palestinian movements, both of whom have carried out suicide bombings against Israelis, the carapace of new "security" measures being lowered onto every aspect of Gaza life means that the PLO leader, who styles himself "President of Palestine", is turning into just another Arab despot. Secret midnight courts are sentencing alleged Hamas members to up to 25 years in prison while at least three Palestinians have died in custody. Only four months ago, a newly-released prisoner was gunned down by Arafat's police in what many Palestinians regard as an extrajudicial execution; he was said to have 70 bullets in his body.

Arafat, who in his days of Beirut exile used to promise "the Arab world's only real democracy" once he returned to Palestine, has now surrounded himself with an intelligence apparatus that would meet with the approval of Saddam Hussein. He has constructed "military security" units, "political security" units, "national security" units and "preventive (sic) security" units along with a Palestinian intelligence service and a praetorian guard of three more paramilitary organisations: Amn al-Riyassi, ("presidential security"), Harass al-Riyassi ("presidential guard") and Force 17, the unit charged with Arafat's personal protection.

In time-honoured Arafat fashion, the heads of these different outfits are encouraged to suspect and hate one another. Colonel Mohamed el-Musri, a former officer in the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine in Damascus, for example, collaborates only with difficulty with his nominal boss, General Nasser Youssef, the head of the Palestinian police force. "Preventive Security" is run by Colonel Mohamed Dahlan, an officer who has developed close relations with the Israeli intelligence services, even though his men are largely composed of Fatah Hawks, who played a leading role in the armed uprising against Israeli occupation, and former long-term prisoners of the Israelis. All heads of security are summoned each night to hear Arafat discourse upon their duties and the dangers to his statelet, a meeting which they now cynically call "The Lecture".

Far from condemning the ever-increasing signs of despotism on the other side of their border, the Israelis have lavished only praise on Arafat's new security measures. US State Department spokesmen, while making ritual reference to their "concern" for human rights, have blandly welcomed and congratulated Arafat on the vitality of his secret midnight courts - a fact bitterly condemned by Amnesty International. Equally secret meetings of Arafat's inner cabinet, which are believed to have ordered mass arrests of political opponents, have been ignored by the US administration.

That Arafat's cabinet meets in secret was revealed only when the PLO leader signed a series of harsh new measares against the press on 25 June this year. Of the 50 articles, the 37th states that it is "strictly prohibited" for journalists to publish "the minutes of the secret (sic) sessions of the Palestinian National Council and the Council of Ministers of the Palestine National Authority". It is at these same meetings that Arafat is said to decide the way in which western funding of the Palestinians should be distributed. At present, western financial aid pays for 9,000 Palestinian security men, 2,000 of whom are supposed to be recruited from inside Gaza and the West Bank, the remainder from outside. But Arafat's security forces now include another 9,000 - 5,500 from "external" PLO forces - all of whom are believed to be paid from long-term bank loans.

"Arafat is finding out what it's like to be Israel's man," one of his political detractors said here this week. "The Israelis know that he is a dictator and that the more internal power he has, the more he will do their bidding. So they approve of all this. They don't want a real democracy because Arafat might lose elections - and a new leader might not obey their wishes. Now they are even turning Arafat against President Assad by persuading the PLO to claim part of the Golan Heights as Palestinian - just as they turned Arafat against King Hussain by persuading Hussain that he has a special role in "protecting" the religious places of Jerusalem. And all the while Jewish settlements continue to be built."

On the surface, it is possible to claim that progress is still being made in the Palestinian "peace process", even if the deadlines for Israeli military withdrawal - for which read minor redeployments - and Palestinian elections have fallen hopelessly behind schedule. The Palestinian Authority now produces its own stamps, but in a currency (the notional Palestinian "pound") which the Israelis refuse to accept, thus restricting mail to addresses in Gaza and Jericho. Palestinian passports have now been printed. A local Palestinian television service mocks junior ministers for their apparent lack of cohesion, even though many in Gaza cannot receive the broadcasts clearly enough to watch.

For all its "security", Arafat's new and bankrupt statelet is still not safe for Americans This week, after the arrest in New York of the Hamas member Moussa Abu Marzouk and Israel's demand for his extradition, the US embassy in Tel Aviv warned Americans not to travel alone, take public transport or go out at night.

At night police sirens wail and, occasionally, from the old Jabaliya camp, even from the centre of town, there are gunshots. But the morning papers carry no hint that anything is wrong. Many Palestinians who welcomed the "freedom" they thought they would inherit under Yasser Arafat's new Palestine refuse to talk to journalists over the telephone and look over their shoulder when chatting in public. "The point is that nothing happens here any more," one of them said. "No one knows anything, no one reports anything wrong. It's just like any other Arab country."

Jeremy Paxman has admitted he is a 'one-nation Tory' and complained that Newsnight is made by idealistic '13-year-olds' who foolishly think they can 'change the world'.
peopleThe idea has been greeted enthusiastically by the party's MPs
Michael Buerk in the I'm A Celebrity jungle 2014
File: David Cameron offers a toast during a State Dinner in his honour March 14, 2012
voicesAnd nobody from Ukip said babies born to migrants should be classed as migrants, says Nigel Farage
Arts and Entertainment
Avatar grossed $2.8bn at the box office after its release in 2009
filmJames Cameron is excited
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment
Stik on the crane as he completed the mural
Happy in his hat: Pharrell Williams
Arts and Entertainment
Stella Gibson is getting closer to catching her killer
tvReview: It's gripping edge-of-the-seat drama, so a curveball can be forgiven at such a late stage
Brazilian football legend Pele pictured in 2011
peopleFans had feared the worst when it was announced the Brazil legand was in a 'special care' unit
i100(More than you think)
Brendan Rodgers seems more stressed than ever before as Liverpool manager
FOOTBALLI like Rodgers as a manager but Liverpool seem to be going backwards not forwards this season
The Magna Carta
archaeologyContemporary account of historic signing discovered
Phyllis Dorothy James on stage during a reading of her book 'Death Comes to Pemberley' last year
peopleJohn Walsh pays tribute to PD James, who died today
Benjamin Stambouli celebrates his goal for Tottenham last night
Life and Style
Dishing it out: the head chef in ‘Ratatouille’
food + drinkShould UK restaurants follow suit?
peopleExclusive: Maryum and Hana Ali share their stories of the family man behind the boxing gloves
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Senior PHP Developer - OOP, Javascript, HTML, CSS, SQL

£39000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Senior PHP Developer - OOP, Javascript, HTML,...

Austen Lloyd: Commercial / Residential Property - Surrey


Recruitment Genius: Graduate Programme - Online Location Services Business

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: What do you want to do with your career? Do yo...

Recruitment Genius: Senior QC Scientist

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This company is a leading expert in immunoassa...

Day In a Page

Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: ‘We give them hope. They come to us when no one else can help’

Christmas Appeal

Meet the charity giving homeless veterans hope – and who they turn to when no one else can help
Should doctors and patients learn to plan humane, happier endings rather than trying to prolong life?

Is it always right to try to prolong life?

Most of us would prefer to die in our own beds, with our families beside us. But, as a GP, Margaret McCartney sees too many end their days in a medicalised battle
Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night - is that what it takes for women to get to the top?

What does it take for women to get to the top?

Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night and told women they had to do more if they wanted to get on
Christmas jumper craze: Inside the UK factory behind this year's multicultural must-have

Knitting pretty: British Christmas Jumpers

Simmy Richman visits Jack Masters, the company behind this year's multicultural must-have
French chefs have launched a campaign to end violence in kitchens - should British restaurants follow suit?

French chefs campaign against bullying

A group of top chefs signed a manifesto against violence in kitchens following the sacking of a chef at a Paris restaurant for scalding his kitchen assistant with a white-hot spoon
Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour War and Peace on New Year's Day as Controller warns of cuts

Just what you need on a New Year hangover...

Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour adaptation of War and Peace on first day of 2015
Cuba set to stage its first US musical in 50 years

Cuba to stage first US musical in 50 years

Claire Allfree finds out if the new production of Rent will hit the right note in Havana
Christmas 2014: 10 best educational toys

Learn and play: 10 best educational toys

Of course you want them to have fun, but even better if they can learn at the same time
Paul Scholes column: I like Brendan Rodgers as a manager but Liverpool seem to be going backwards not forwards this season

Paul Scholes column

I like Brendan Rodgers as a manager but Liverpool seem to be going backwards not forwards this season
Lewis Moody column: Stuart Lancaster has made all the right calls – now England must deliver

Lewis Moody: Lancaster has made all the right calls – now England must deliver

So what must the red-rose do differently? They have to take the points on offer 
Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

It's in all our interests to look after servicemen and women who fall on hard times, say party leaders
Millionaire Sol Campbell wades into wealthy backlash against Labour's mansion tax

Sol Campbell cries foul at Labour's mansion tax

The former England defender joins Myleene Klass, Griff Rhys Jones and Melvyn Bragg in criticising proposals
Nicolas Sarkozy returns: The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?

Sarkozy returns

The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?
Is the criticism of Ed Miliband a coded form of anti-Semitism?

Is the criticism of Miliband anti-Semitic?

Attacks on the Labour leader have coalesced around a sense that he is different, weird, a man apart. But is the criticism more sinister?
Ouija boards are the must-have gift this Christmas, fuelled by a schlock horror film

Ouija boards are the must-have festive gift

Simon Usborne explores the appeal - and mysteries - of a century-old parlour game