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issues Friday, 30 November, 2001, 12:54 GMT
The running of Palestine
Palestinian Authority cabinet: left to right: Arafat, Ahmed Qurei (parliament speaker), Yasser Abed Rabbo (information culture), Saeb Erekat (local govt)
Yasser Arafat chairs a meeting of the Palestinian Authority cabinet
By BBC News Online's Martin Asser

Yasser Arafat's Palestinian National Authority (PA) is a unique creature, born of what is widely seen as a now-defunct peace process and transformed by a bloody conflict with the state that is meant to be its peace partner.

During its short existence, the body has largely failed to live up to the widespread optimism and high expectations which greeted its formation in the mid-1990s.

Palestinian security forces exchanging fire with Israeli in Gaza
Peace process weapons have been put to use in war
It has brought corruption, police brutality and - with an estimated 120 separate departments answering directly to Mr Arafat - there has been very little movement towards the pluralist civil society that was envisaged.

In 1997, a much-quoted Palestinian parliamentary committee report found that nearly 40% of the PA's $800m annual budget, much of it coming from foreign aid donations, had been squandered through corruption and mismanagement.

The situation since the outbreak of the Palestinian intifada in September 2000 has brought some weakening of centralised power, but Yasser Arafat remains the final authority on all important matters and the pivotal figure in the PA.

Mr Arafat's legitimacy stems from decades at the helm of the Palestinian liberation struggle and - perhaps to a lesser extent - elections in the West Bank and Gaza in January 1996 when he won nearly 90% of the vote.

Arafat's 'army'
National Security:
8,500-strong, routine security ops
Force 17:
3,300-strong presidential bodyguard
Military Intelligence:
600 officers, counter-intelligence, internal security
Preventive Security:
:3,000-strong, internal security force
General Intelligence:
800 officers, counters Israel security ops
Palestinian Police:
12,000-strong police force
Maritime Police:
Plans for further elections, and a pledge to sign a constitution which would limit Mr Arafat's executive powers, have been shelved as crisis followed crisis in the Palestine Autonomous Areas (PAA).

Military power

During the hey-day of the peace process, Mr Arafat ruled with the help of an impressive array of security and intelligence agencies consisting of about 40,000 personnel.

These include the powerful Preventive Security intelligence agency, Military Intelligence, National Security (for routine security operations), Special Security (monitoring opposition groups), and the elite Force-17 presidential guard.

There is also the General Intelligence organisation (countering internal subversion), the military, civilian and maritime police, the last of which has branches Gaza and the (landlocked) West Bank.

Some of these forces have now turned the light weapons they were given under the Israeli-Palestinian peace accords against Israeli targets, and have lost dozens of men in Israeli Army attacks.

Arafat sworn in as PA president on 13 February 1996
Moment of hope: Arafat sworn in as PA president
One outcome of this military confrontation, according to some observers, is that the different forces now feel less dependent on the central figure of Yasser Arafat and freer to follow their own agendas in the on-going conflict.

Beyond the security and intelligence apparatus there stand the shadowy ranks of the Tanzim (organisation), a militia of up to 40,000 Arafat loyalists which acts as a counterweight to the militant Islamic groups, Hamas and Islamic Jihad.

However, Tanzim-Islamist joint operations against Israel have been a feature of life since September 2000.

Political scene

Before the intifada, many Arafat critics charged that the PA - with its well-developed security arm and stunted civil institutions - was little more that a way of repressing the Palestinian population under Israeli occupation.

That impression was compounded by the apparent powerlessness of the judiciary and legislature, branches of government that were elected at the same time as Mr Arafat but that have proved incapable of providing the necessary checks and balances in government.

Palestinian military intelligence officer
Keeping tabs: a military intelligence officer saves files from a bombed office
Things came to a head in December 1999 when a group of 20 Palestinian academics and Legislative Council members, including some from Arafat's own Fatah movement, published a letter condemning the leader for "opening the door for widespread corruption and exploitation of the Palestinian public".

Most of the signatories were arrested without charge, and their initiative was ineffective.

But the incident - and the apparent popularity of the sentiment on the streets - served to show how thin Arafat's support base was.

Succession issues

The death of Faisal Husseini in May 2001 fuelled speculation about possible successors to Mr Arafat, who in his long career has been careful not to anoint a successor.

Mahmoud Abbas
Mahmoud Abbas: a possible successor to Yasser Arafat
Like many other Arab leaders, Arafat has been wary of rivals - and even his closest lieutenants have often been kept on a short leash.

Most analysts speculate that, if Mr Arafat suddenly left the scene, his likely successor would be either the second in command in the PLO, Mahmoud Abbas, or the Legislative Council speaker Ahmed Qurei.

But neither is a young man and neither would be a particularly popular choice.

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