A Disintegrating Leadership

The last vestiges of order are breaking down into chaos in Palestinian ruling circles as Yasser Arafat and a second would-be Palestinian prime minister, Ahmed Qureia, battle it out for control.

After failing to wrest confirmation of the premiership from Arafat – he is still only a caretaker premier – Qureia, aka Abu Ala, decided that he did after all want to be invited to Washington to meet senior Bush administration officials.

This is reported by DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s Palestinian sources and sources in the US capital.

However, the White House turned him down flat, reminding him how he snubbed a US invitation in late September, telling his aides he wanted no truck with Americans or Israelis.

He then tried to wangle an invitation for his candidate for international security minister, Nasser Yousef. That did not work either. Washington pointed out that Yousef doesn’t want the job. The man the Americans want in the key post of internal security is Gaza strongman Mohammed Dahlan who held the job in the former Abu Mazen government.

But that was not Abu Ala’s only problem with Washington this week.

A worried man, he confided to his cronies that he was plagued by a nightmare scenario.

It goes like this: Supposing, one fine day, the Americans say ‘Mister Ahmed Qurie, this morning the British, Israelis and Egyptians gave us the names of the murderers of the three CIA men killed by a remote-controlled bomb blast on October 15 in the Gaza Strip. We asked you for those names but you did not oblige. Here they are now and we want you to head down to the Gaza Strip today, order your security forces to pick them up and hand them over to us.

This is what Qureia is most afraid of. He knows he can’t bring them in himself. He will have to ask Rashid Abu Shbak, Dahlan’s successor as head of preventive security, to hand the men over to him as prime minister. But he knows Abu Shbak will laugh in his face.

US Investigators get the runaround in Gaza

There are good grounds for Abu Ala’s bad dream.

According to DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s counter-terrorism sources, the US investigation team did not approach Abu Shbak directly, knowing he is an instigator of terrorism. They also understood that he would not help them crack the case – especially if it meant a showdown with the killers.

It was therefore left to the Americans to stick their hands in the fire and go after the bombers – unless they could persuade Abu Ala to pull the irons out of the fire for them.

The US investigating team, we have learned, followed the intelligence lead offered in the debkafile October 18 disclosure that the bombers came from the Khan Younes militia of Jemal Sema Dana’s Popular Resistance Committees headed by Yasser Zannoon and Mohammad al-Baba.

To get hold of the pair, the US team resorted to the “resolution method,” first determining which terrorist organizations control a given district and then homing in on each cell and questioning its members. Hoping to complete their probe before the murderers got away, our sources report the team finally reached Zannoon and Baba and heard what they had to say.

Zannoon: Look, we’re a local militia, not a regular army. We don’t always know what our people are up to. We don’t deny they must have executed the terrorist act that killed the three Americans security agents. But we have launched our own inquiry and discovered they really belong to an undercover Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine cell that showed up on our doorstep about four years ago asking to join. We accepted them, but they kept themselves apart from the rest of the militia.

When we asked them why they didn’t take part in our attacks on the Israelis, they admitted they were on a special mission to strike special targets on orders coming from the outside. It looks like they finally received their orders on October 13.

The US team asked for the cell members’ names and descriptions. Zannoon refused making all sorts of excuses and swearing he had never actually set eyes on the mystery cell members.

End of the line.

No wonder Abu Ala is afraid the American investigators will ultimately wend their way back to him.

All roads peter out

The issue of the killers’ extradition is not Abu Ala’s only problem in the Gaza Strip.

DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s sources disclose that, on a visit late last month to Cairo, he turned down an Egyptian proposal for him to meet Moussa Abu Marzook, the Damascus-based leader of overseas Hamas, who was also in town.

Returning to Ramallah, Qureia agreed to meet Hamas-Gaza leader sheikh Ahmed Yassin, which prompted Abu Marzook’s suspicion that Abu Ala was seeking to stir up trouble between the Damascus and Gaza wings of Hamas. Abu Marzook therefore raised obstructions to prevent any sort of ceasefire with Israel coming about. Yassin, who was privately willing to accept a truce to give his Hamas terrorists a chance to find new hiding places and regroup, pulled back from the venture.

End of another road.

While determined not to join Abu Mazen in the dustbin of history, Qureia faces insuperable difficulties at every attempt to institute working government or introduce a semblance of order in Palestinian ranks. To complicate the mayhem, the Ramallah Tanzim of Arafat’s Fatah launched a Ramadan recruitment drive, which is more like a joust.. Beforehand, the militia, like much else in the Palestinian ruling elite, broke up nto four competing arms. One is well-funded and loyal to Dahlan; one follows Mohammad Horani, the former right-hand man of jailed Fatah leader Marwan Barghouti (with whom relations have since cooled); a third group is led by Hussein a-Sheikh, the former West Bank Fatah general secretary who controls Arafat’s terror machine in Jenin and Tulkarm, and a fourth arm is controlled by Abbas Zakhi, a Fatah leader in Hebron.

DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s Palestinian sources report that senior operatives of the four Tanzim segments fan out across the West Bank every night and spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on sumptuous spreads for the “iftar” meals in order to attract new members.

The end of the 30-day fast month will also signal which of the four Tanzim elements comes out on top. The charismatic Barghouti, who is on trial in Israel for direct complicity in the murder of 23 Israelis, still has the clout to tap the winning faction.

Whoever it turns out to be, Abu Ala will still face the impossible task of trying to piece together a fragmented Palestinian society shot to pieces by Arafat and Israeli counter-terror action. At this point, he has no clue whether he has any political future. But he is clinging to his uncertain position with all his might.

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