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."
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