Mr Arafat must not ignore the dissent in Gaza

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Yasser Arafat has survived many threats to his life and many assaults on his leadership. But the present crisis in Gaza represents possibly the gravest challenge of his political career, since it comes from many of the core supporters he has alienated.

Yasser Arafat has survived many threats to his life and many assaults on his leadership. But the present crisis in Gaza represents possibly the gravest challenge of his political career, since it comes from many of the core supporters he has alienated.

The immediate cause of the near-anarchy of recent days was Mr Arafat's shamelessly corrupt decision to elevate a nephew to head internal security as part of a long-promised overhaul. Yesterday Mr Arafat rescinded the appointment in a belated attempt to mollify his critics. However, Mr Arafat may still lose his Prime Minister, Ahmed Qurei, who tendered his resignation after a string of kidnappings and a breakdown of law and order in Gaza. Mr Qurei is supposed to have overall charge of security, but like his predecessor, Abu Mazen, his position is almost untenable against Mr Arafat's refusal to cede authority.

Mr Arafat illegally used the departure of Abu Mazen to reinforce his own hold over internal security, but he is now facing a groundswell of anger - albeit encouraged by Fatah militants - from an impoverished and embattled people exhausted by years of both Israeli military assault and misrule by their own leaders. The "cronyism" row, and the dispute over control of security, also represent a struggle for power by rival Palestinian factions ahead of a planned Israeli military withdrawal from Gaza by the end of 2005. Younger Palestinians are attempting to assert themselves over the "old guard" represented by Mr Arafat and his cronies, which they see - with some justification - as tribal, corrupt and autocratic.

Mr Arafat's reluctance to surrender control of the security forces under pressure from the Americans and Israelis is not surprising. But faced with such intense internal pressure he has to give ground. His behaviour is helpful only to the extremists of Hamas on one hand and the extremists on the right of Israeli politics who oppose dealings with the Palestinian leadership on the other. Even Mr Arafat, for all his stubbornness, must recognise that it is in Palestinian interests to show that the Palestinian Authority is the government of a state-in-waiting, not the plaything of an ageing autocrat.

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