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Can Arafat juggle the Qa’ida element?

The London-based Arabic daily, Al-Hayyat, carries a front-page story about a meeting scheduled, possibly next week, between the Americans and Palestinians over the presence of Al-Qa’ida in the Palestinian territories. Its title translates into English: “Palestinian–American meeting to discuss Israeli account about Al-Qa’ida.”

The article launches straight into what should normally be in a different article; clashes between Fatah and Hamas in Gaza.

Relations between Hamas and Fatah (the Arafat bloc), have taken a plunge. A senior Palestinian minister and close Arafat aide proudly declared only two days ago that Hamas and Fatah could well reach an agreement in talks in Cairo. The mood has changed. A Palestinian policeman, ’Assam Ghain, affiliated to Fatah was assassinated along with his child on the important Muslim festival ’Aid Al-Fi’tr in clashes between Hamas and Fatah in one of the main pro-Hamas neighborhoods of Gaza.

A senior Palestinian official was quoted as saying everything is being done to establish an inquiry into this matter. This is not the first time that inter-Palestinian fighting has resulted in the death of Fatah-affiliated police. After the September 11 attacks, the Palestinian police tried to quell anti-American riots and celebrations which resulted in the deaths of civilians.

Fatah, predictably, has responded by calling for Palestinian unity.

Only at the end of the article, and tucked away on page 6, does the article deal with the issue of Al-Qa’ida in the Palestinian territories. Ariel Sharon informed the Americans some time ago of Israeli intelligence assessments that Al-Qa’ida is operating in Gaza. The article says that the Palestinians have already met twice with the Americans some four months ago to update them on the matter. It goes on to say that the British, French and the intelligence agencies of Arab countries have been informed.

There is a cloak of mystery hanging over the issue of Al-Qa’ida in the Palestinian territories. It seems that Al-Hayyat was interested in carrying a story on the matter but lacked the information to fill the story with substantive facts. What is clear is that the Palestinians are facing pressure from the U.S. to act on the issue. Israeli intelligence reports are taken very seriously by the Americans.

The Palestinians are riding an Islamic storm and Arafat does not want to rock the boat. Fatah, the ruling group, is facing serious threats from Hamas, as shown above. Hamas and Al-Qa’ida share an agenda of wanting to establish an Islamic State. Fatah is unable to control Hamas and therefore it would be very unlikely they could control Al-Qa’ida either. It is logical that Al-Qa’ida’s sympathizers would be in anti-Fatah circles.

What would be interesting to see is how rival Islamic groups relate to each other in Gaza. No one Islamic administration, be it Afghanistan, Iran, Sudan or Pakistan has ever get on with other political elements. Hamas so far has been silent, but one could predict that they would welcome Al-Qa’ida’s economic and technical assistance, albeit with reservations. Hamas receives backing from Iran which wants to distance itself from Osama bin-Laden.

The Palestinian Authority (PA) is playing a dangerous game of managing Islamism in the territories by turning a blind eye. The PA is interested in maintaining its own rule. It can only do this by not attacking the Islamic groups, which now enjoy significant popular support. At the same time, the PA publicly distances itself so as to keep America and the international community on its side. It needs America for economic and diplomatic support.

How the PA acts on this issue could decide its future. If it sides with Al-Qa’ida and Hamas it could lose American support which would put it in a weaker negotiating position, if peace talks with Israel ever resume. A weak negotiating position would cause public discontent which would only serve Hamas’ interests. Conversely, if negotiations do not resume, the PA also loses out. The PA population has become poorer and poorer since the start of the Palestinian uprising. This is largely a result of Israeli security closures and checkpoints, which the Israelis claim are essential to stop suicide bombers entering Israeli sovereign territory and committing civilian massacres.

PA television has been producing material praising martyrdom attacks (suicide bombings). This has brought it closer to Hamas. Periodically, it is in the PA’s and Fatah’s interests to show they clash with Hamas. The presence of Al-Qa’ida, however, will elicit a zero-tolerance response from the U.S. The PA will no longer be able to play its double dance. It will have to decide to act decisively against anti-American groups, which most definitely include Hamas and Islamic Jihad.

Arafat has excelled at avoiding this showdown. However, juggling with Al-Qa’ida cells may be beyond even Arafat, the master juggler himself.