Palestinian officials were conspicuously perplexed, not knowing how to deal with the unprecedented situation.
Eventually, Arafat regained consciousness, allowing PA officials and operatives to breathe a sigh of relief.
The incident, says former Fatah Leader in the Hebron region, Ahmad Dudin, demonstrated the “fragile nature of the Palestinian Authority”.
“The Palestinian Authority has always been a one-man operation. Arafat never really agreed to share power. That is the problem.”
Centralisation of power
Indeed, until the outbreak of the Palestinian Intifada against Israel’s occupation of the Palestinian homeland nearly 40 months ago, Arafat held all the reins, controlled all the money and took all the decisions.
Until the Intifada began, Arafat held
all the reins of power
In a certain sense, Arafat was the Palestinian Authority and the Palestinian Authority was Arafat. Moreover, the result of this autocracy was, according to one Palestinian human rights activist, “a police state without a state.”
Arafat's critics accuse him of eliminating virtually all alternatives to him and refusing doggedly to appoint a deputy who would take over in case of the chairman’s death, senility or incompetence.
“This is Arafat’s narcissism. And we are all suffering from it. I am afraid the Palestinian people will still be suffering from it even after his death,” says Dudin, who himself was imprisoned for several months for signing a leaflet demanding political and financial reforms within the Palestinian Authority.
Sakhr Habash, a close aide to Yasir Arafat, disagrees.
He argues that most of the fears surrounding the post-Arafat era stem from the fact that Arafat holds several key positions, including President of the Palestinian Auithority, Chairman of the PLO and Head of Fatah.
"They (critics) forget that we have mature institutions that will make the transition of power smooth and orderly."
Habash recognises that the absence of Arafat would intially undermine Fatah.
However, he believes that the movement would soon overcome "difficulties" because "we are a flexible and deep rooted movement".
In the final analysis, Habash says democracy will be the ultimate aribiter.
"The Palestinian people will decide, and Fatah will accept the people's decision," he told Aljazeera.net.
Yasir Arafat is nearly 75 years old now, and with frail health. Moreover, his grip on power - since the Israeli army re-occupied the bulk of the Palestinian autonomous enclaves - has been considerably weakened.
Asset and liability
Indeed, Arafat agreed under pressure to appoint a prime minister, a step originally inspired by Israel and the United States and intended primarily to weaken the Palestinian leader.
Nonetheless, Arafat remains largely the “adhesive glue” that keeps the “various components of Fatah and the Palestinian Authority together”.
“Arafat has been an asset as much as a liability. It is true that he maintained an autocratic style of governance, but it is equally true that he kept the Palestinian national movement intact,” says Azmi Shuaibi, a former PA cabinet minister.
So, when his time comes, who will succeed Yasir Arafat?
Fatah's cohesion is in doubt
Very few Palestinians can give a clear answer to this question.
According to Atif Udwan, Prof of Political Science at al-Azhar University in Gaza, there are many variables to be considered before an answer can be found.
“The important question is not who will succeed Yasir Arafat but how he will be succeeded. As long as he is alive, there is nothing to be vied for because he controls everything, but when he disappears, many will leap for power and money.”
Udwan points out that the smoothness of transition of power after Arafat will depend “to a very large extent” on the extent to which Fatah, Arafat’s own faction, will remain “intact and united”.
“We have to remember that Fatah is not homogenous. It is a supermarket of ideas and loyalties.”
Unlike Dudin, Udwan believes that “foreign sides” would seek from the earliest point to secure a “foothold” for themselves.
“The question of who will succeed Yasir Arafat will not be an exclusively Palestinian affair. There are the Jordanians, the Egyptians, the Americans and even the Israelis. All those will try to manipulate the post-Arafat arrangements to their favour.”
Palestinians are nearly unanimous that Arafat’s disappearance, especially if it takes place suddenly, will leave a huge political and psychological vacuum throughout the Palestinian arena.
According to the Palestinian Basic Law, the Speaker of the Palestinian Legislative Council will assume executive power pending the election of a President in two months.
However, many doubt that the largely undisciplined Fatah hierarchy in Ram Allah would adhere to the rule of the Basic Law.
“They would behave democratically when democracy works in their interests. When it doesn’t, they make trouble,” says Shuaibi.
Marwan Barghuti is among the front-
runners to succeed Arafat
However, he recognises that Fatah would eventually “return to the right path” if confronted by a strong and pressing public opinion.
“I think if other Palestinian forces, and the Palestinian society at large, pressure Fatah to act responsibly, they will return to their senses and accept the people’s will.”
Moreover, according to Shuaibi, the absence of Arafat will weaken Fatah considerably.
However, he argues that “the threat of disintegration and the prospect of losing pre-eminence within the Palestinian society” might eventually serve as an incentive for the movement “to put its house in order and get itself together”.
“They might just get united in the face of the danger of disintegration and competition from other Palestinian forces. Fatah, as we have known it, gets united during times of crises.”
This is not, however, the view of Abd al-Sattar Qassim, Professor of Political science at al-Najah National University.
Qassim argues, “Fatah will definitely disintegrate and polarise into many groups and factions.”
“In Fatah, there are true patriots. But there are also many hangers-on, opportunistic elements who joined Arafat for purely material gains. And there are people who work for Israel as well.”
“I would say most, if not all, the people around Arafat now don’t fit as leaders.”
“Fatah will definitely disintegrate and polarise into many groups and factions”
Prof Abd al-Sattar Qassim,
Al-Najah National University
Some Palestinian pundits contend that a “semblance of continuity” will be needed in order to assure stability and prevent the occurrence of “anarchy and turbulence”.
Such continuity, some would argue, could be guaranteed if veteran PLO figures such as Faruq Qadumi is appointed as “heir apparent” or vice-President, or eventually elected as President of the Palestinian Authority.
According to Dudin, Qadumi has a good chance of being elected as successor to Arafat.
“He represents Palestinian national orthodoxy. He opposed the Oslo Accords and has not been contaminated by the Oslo process. He is also pragmatic and supports a peaceful solution based on United Nations resolutions.”
However, other intellectuals believe that most Palestinians, especially in the occupied territories of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, have grown tired with “traditional PLO figures.”
“I believe (imprisoned Fatah leader) Marwan al-Barghuthi has a better chance of succeeding Arafat if a free and fair election is held now,” says Atif Udwan.
“The Palestinian masses may not be the most politically-sophisticated people on earth. But I assure you they know who deserves their votes, and who doesn’t.”