Palestinians gripped by fear and uncertainty as prospect of power vacuum increases

Mustafa Abu Shawari did not pause from slapping dough for the traditional
qatayef of Ramadan on to the hob outside the Nazareth restaurant in Ramallah as he considered the fate of the sick old man in his bed some 400 yards away. "We may lose him," he said. "We should pray to God about the consequences."

Mustafa Abu Shawari did not pause from slapping dough for the traditional qatayef of Ramadan on to the hob outside the Nazareth restaurant in Ramallah as he considered the fate of the sick old man in his bed some 400 yards away. "We may lose him," he said. "We should pray to God about the consequences."

His boss, Wael Nasrawi, a supporter of Yasser Arafat, was just as fearful, and much more lurid, in describing what he expected if the great survivor's battle with a two-week-old illness did turn out to be his last.

"What is going to happen will make the [Israeli] occupation seem easy by comparison," he said. There might or might not be a Palestinian "civil war", but "all the traitors, collaborators and sons of dogs" with scores to settle against the followers of the PLO chairman would "play their role".

The men on the pavement outside the Nazareth were wholly cynical about reports on radio and television - reinforced by bland interviews with Palestinian Authority (PA) ministers - that Mr Arafat's illness was not life-threatening.

All those in the Arafat entourage - apart from the president - were corrupt, Mr Nas- wari said. "If he was corrupt, he wouldn't have been imprisoned in the Mukata for three years," interjected his friend, Mohammed Juma, referring to the compound to which Mr Arafat has been restricted.

So who, if the worst happened, would Mr Naswari like to see as the new president? "Anyone clean," came the reply. Was there such a person? "No", shot back Mr Naswari, before correcting himself to mention the name of a popular Fatah leader on many lips. "Marwan Barghouti is the only one I can use the word about, but he is in [an Israeli] prison and I can't help him."

Mr Naswari was at one extreme of the spectrum between apprehension and mute indifference on the streets of Ramallah to the drama unfolding behind the concrete and barbed wire defences of the battered Arafat compound, streets on which, in stark contrast to the frantic media circus around the Mukata itself, life continued with utter normality.

The proprietor of the Salaaneh Shwarma shop, who declined to give his name, was at the other extreme. "I don't want to speak about this," he said. "I like to do my work and go home to my family." But the PLO leader might be dying. "Well, my father died too. I don't think he is a better man than my father."

But Mr Naswari was far from alone in considering what might happen in a still scarcely imaginable post-Arafat era. Saleh Abdul Jawad's roots as a PLO comrade of Mr Arafat go back to Lebanon in 1973. He is now among a small group of half a dozen vigorously pro-reform democrats on the Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC) in favour of passive rather than armed resistance to the Israeli occupation, and rather less willing than Mr Naswari to exempt Mr Arafat from charges of corruption.

For Mr Jawad, there are two possibilities: one, infinitely preferable to the other, is that the PA would conform with its own basic law, under which the speaker of the PLC would assume office for 60 days then call for free national elections for a new president. The second is the rumoured installation of a three-man committee including the prime minister, Ahmad Qureia, and his predecessor, Abu Mazen, Mr Arafat's successor as PLO chairman.

Such a device, a "violation" of the constitution, would be acceptable to Mr Jawad only if it, too, set a date for free presidential elections. If it did, it could herald a clean break with the past corruption and chronic delivery failures of the PA. If it did not, a bloody internecine struggle in which the faction with the "most power and resources" would rise to the top could follow. In this, as in so much else, Mr Jawad, who said it was too early to say he might be a candidate, believes Mr Arafat and a corrupt PA have suited the policies of Ariel Sharon, the Israeli Prime Minister, providing an "umbrella" for committing continued "war crimes" against Palestinians and refusing negotiations. As a result, Israel might resist the opening of roads and checkpoints necessary for fully successful national elections to preserve the status quo, perhaps using the device of three-man transitional leadership to promote its favoured candidate.

Mr Jawad was not convinced that Mr Barghouti represents a clean break with Mr Arafat's methods but acknowledged that if the Israelis released him he would be a "real contender". He had similar "mixed" feelings about Abu Mazen, whom Israel did woefully little to help when he was trying to reform the PA as prime minister last year, but he freely acknowledged him as a "willing democrat".

Ali Jarbawi, a political scientist at Bir Zeit University, supports Abu Mazen, to whom he predicts real power would be transferred if Mr Arafat dies or becomes incapacitated, because the differing Fatah groups are likeliest to coalesce around him. But he did not rule out problems and "political violence with some groups attacking other groups. We have so many splits that this a serious threat".

Professor Jarbawi was less worried about a closed, PLO-conducted succession "because we are dependent on personalities and if we want to transfer power from personalities to instititutions, it is the personalities that have to bring it about".

Mr Jawad agreed with Professor Jarbawi about the dangers of a vacuum. "Arafat always leaves things as if he is eternal," he said.

The international attention focused on the Muqata as darkness fell last night was a reminder that he is nothing of the sort.

POSSIBLE SUCCESSORS TO YASSER ARAFAT

Jibril Rajoub, former head of the Preventative Security Service in the West Bank, is widely tipped as one of the most likely contenders. A longstanding member of Fatah, Mr Rajoub is seen as a pragmatist who has clamped down on the extremism of Hamas. He is against attacks inside Israel, claiming they damage the Palestinian cause, but has backed the intifada as a means of discouraging Jewish settlers. Born near Hebron in 1953, Mr Rajoub was sentenced by Israel to life imprisonment in 1970 for throwing a grenade at soldiers. He was expelled to Lebanon in 1988.

Ahmad Qureia (better known as Abu Ala), the Palestinian prime minister since 2003. Mr Qureia played an important role in the Oslo peace agreement with Israel in 1993, which led to Palestinian autonomy in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. He was born in Jerusalem in 1937 and is seen as a moderate. He is a skilled negotiator and is more popular than most among Israeli counterparts. Under Palestinian law, if the president dies or is incapacitated, it is the speaker of the Legislative Council who becomes head of the Palestinian Authority until elections are held.

Mahmoud Abbas, who also goes by the name of Abu Mazen, is another moderate who has frequently negotiated with the Israelis. A power struggle with Yasser Arafat led him to resign as Palestinian prime minister in 2003 and he is now secretary general of the PLO Executive Committee. Born in Safed in British Mandate Palestine in 1935, he is one of the few surviving founders of Fatah - the main political group in the PLO. He accompanied Mr Arafat into exile in Jordan, Lebanon and Tunisia. He has been denounced by many Israelis as a Holocaust-denier, a charge he denies.

Marwan Barghouti is widely seen to be the most popular Palestinian politician next to Mr Arafat. Another local leader who has come to the fore during the current intifada, Mr Barghouti was the head of Fatah in the West Bank but is currently in an Israeli jail serving five consecutive life sentences. He was a committed supporter of the Oslo peace accords and used to oppose Palestinian attacks on civilians inside Israel before the intifada in 2000, butis now more militant. He sees Ariel Sharon's disengagement plan as an achievement of the intifada.

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