International Papers

No Sir, Yasser!

The international press looks at trouble in Gaza and a death in Beirut.

“Meet the new boss, same as the old boss,” was a theme sounded in many newspapers to explain the ongoing crisis facing Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. That was because at the weekend Arafat, despite criticism, appointed his allegedly corrupt cousin, Musa Arafat, to be chief of the General Security service in Gaza following armed demonstrations on Friday against the previous batch of security chiefs. Under mounting pressure, however, Arafat canceled the appointment on Monday morning, hours after he refused to accept the resignation of harried Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmad Qorei.

A report on the Ha’aretz Web site Monday, which most print editions of newspapers missed because of its timing, noted that Arafat had “annulled” the appointment and asked the man that Musa Arafat replaced to return to his post. This and the fact that Musa Arafat will remain a top security official in Gaza suggest the crisis may not be over. Ha’aretz observed that the initial reshuffle of security chiefs (which led to Musa Arafat’s appointment) came as part of Yasser Arafat’s pledge to the Egyptians (in order to fulfill the U.S.-sponsored “road map” to Israeli-Palestinian peace) to reduce the number of Palestinian security agencies. In that sense, it predated the crisis that began last Friday, after Palestinian militants kidnapped, then released, four Frenchmen and two Palestinian security officials in protest against Arafat.

In effect, three parallel developments are taking place: Arafat’s effort to reform (or pretend to reform) his tentacular security apparatus under outside pressure; growing discontent among many Palestinian groups at their leader’s autocratic rule; and an inter-Palestinian struggle for power over areas of the Gaza Strip that Israel has said it would withdraw from by the end of next year.

Most newspapers on Monday led with the story that the situation in Gaza remained violent on Sunday, as more than a dozen people were injured in inter-Palestinian fighting between pro-Arafat forces and members of the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades. (Though the latter emerged from Arafat’s shadow, it has had a contentious relationship with the Palestinian leader.) London’s Daily Telegraph called the situation “the most serious internal challenge to [Arafat’s] leadership since returning from exile, with a gun battle, an audacious attack on Palestinian Authority security offices and street protests in the Gaza Strip.” The paper described “signs of a breakdown of security in the Gaza Strip when the [pro-Arafat] Palestinian intelligence service’s headquarters was set ablaze by masked gunmen who stole weapons and released every prisoner in the compound.”

However, Beirut’s An-Nahar had arguably the most evocative title: “Will Arafat and the [Opposition Palestinian] Groups Be Able to Transcend the Trap of Civil War Laid by [Israeli Prime Minister Ariel] Sharon?” This implied what many in the Middle East believe: that Israel’s planned pullout from Gaza is at least partly intended to precipitate a conflict between Palestinian groups for control of the liberated territory. The publisher of Beirut’s Al-Safir, whose closeness to Syria has often made him an abrasive critic of Yasser Arafat, seemed to agree. In a front-page editorial, he wrote: “This is not the time to settle accounts [with Arafat], it is the time to face the invasive danger to Palestine. … There are no advantages in issuing blame or in harsh criticism except to justify the plan of the [Israeli] enemy to politically destroy what it could not destroy” by other means.

On its front page, the London-based Al-Hayat showed a harried Qorei trying to avoid journalists’ questions as he entered Arafat’s headquarters in Ramallah on Sunday. At the meeting, Arafat, according to numerous wire reports, responded in this way to his prime minister’s decision to step down: “I totally reject your resignation and consider it nonexistent.” Nonexistent though Qorei’s resignation might have been, the Jerusalem Post predicted that Arafat’s decision to backtrack on appointing Musa Arafat “is likely to diffuse tension between him and [the prime minister] who is expected to reconsider his decision to resign.”

The print press was left dangling on another late-breaking Middle East story with Israeli connotations—one that, again, only newspaper Web sites picked up: the assassination in Beirut of a Hezbollah official, one Ghaleb Awali. According to Ha’aretz, “Al-Manar TV, affiliated with Hezbollah, showed charred remains of a car and said it blew up when ‘one of the strugglers in the resistance’ started the engine to leave his home.” The Israeli daily Ma’ariv reported: “An unknown Sunni organization has claimed responsibility for the act. Israel has denied any involvement whatsoever.” Naharnet, the English-language Web site that is a portal for Lebanon’s Al-Nahar, identified the Sunni Islamist organization as Jund al-Sham (Soldiers of Damascus), a group recently established in a Palestinian refugee camp that espouses enmity toward Shiites. However, a Hezbollah statement “dismissed [the] claim as an Israeli-sponsored hoax, holding the Mossad secret service of the Jewish state directly responsible for the assassination, a stance that could set the Lebanese-Israeli border aflame anew.”

Perhaps, or it could just be just another hit in the enduring covert war between Hezbollah and Israel, where each kills people on the other side according to “rules of the game” that mostly avoid escalating to a full-scale confrontation.