Palestinian sources say the enduring crisis has personal as well as political dimensions.
Earlier this week Arafat intervened to re-instate the head of the civil servants bureau in Gaza, Muhammad Abu Sharia, shortly after he was fired by Abbas, ostensibly for corruption.
Arafat reportedly called Abu Sharia, urging him to remain in his post. When Abbas sought to enforce his decision by dispatching the police, Fatah fighters and other Arafat loyalists brandished their automatic rifles to repulse them.
The incident could have easily turned into a bloodbath had the police not withdrawn. This row in Gaza also encapsulates the increasingly problematic relations between Arafat and Abbas.
Abbas, whose very appointment as prime minister Arafat accepted only reluctantly, has been demanding that all Palestinian police forces and security agencies should be answerable to him and not Arafat, who is by law commander-in-chief of the “Palestinian National Forces.”
“I won’t become a tartur in Abu Mazin’s hands”
Yasir Arafat, Palestinian President
However, Arafat realises that should he budge to this demand, he would be effectively stripped of real power and eventually reduced to a powerless figurehead.
“I won’t become a tartur in Abu Mazin’s hands,” Arafat is reported to have said last week. In the Palestinian vernacular tartur means an errand boy.
On the other hand, it is clear that Abbas will not be able to carry out his responsibilities as prime minister if he does not acquire executive powers.
The problem is that these powers can only be obtained from Arafat at his expense. Also, Palestinian laws are far from concise on the distribution of powers between the President and Prime Minister.
The nonexistence of a constitutional court, or a similar body, further complicates the issue.
The mistrust between Arafat and Abbas is further reinforced by his continuing confinement in his thoroughly battered Ram Allah headquarters.
Arafat had hoped that in return for agreeing to give up some of his powers to Abbas, the latter would get the Israelis to lift the 19-month siege. When Abbas failed to do so, Arafat felt betrayed.
Then there is the saber-rattling by the Israeli military and political establishments to contend with.
On Monday, Israeli Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz told the army radio that he would seek to deport or get rid of Arafat before the end of this year.
“The state of Israel made a historic mistake by not expelling him some two years ago and we had more than a few opportunities to do this,” said Mofaz.
Abbas has told his legislators to
“As for the future, I believe that we will need to address this matter in a relatively short space of time, very possibly even this year.”
While some PA officials ridiculed these threats, Arafat is reportedly taking them quite seriously, given the nightmarish experience he had to endure when Israeli bulldozers pulverised his office, pushing him to the brink of death.
Last week, Arafat appointed former security chief in the occupied West Bank Jibril al-Rajub as National Security Adviser.
The largely symbolic appointment was ostensibly meant to strengthen the President’s camp vis-à-vis the Prime Minister’s.
In real terms, however, the appointment will have little effect on the ground as neither al-Rajub, nor Arafat or Abbas will be able to do much as long as Israeli armour continues to rumble along the streets of the West Bank.
Indeed, in the Palestinian context, it is futile to speak of a President, Prime Minister, National Security Adviser and other grand titles as long the Israeli military occupation continues to tightly control every conceivable aspect of Palestinian life.
It is uncertain how and when the present crisis between the two former comrades will end.
What is clear though is that the two will have to compromise and find a way to work together, lest their recurrent squabbling inflict further damage to the Palestinian national cause.