Yasser Arafat and the Myth of Legitimacy

By Daniel Polisar

How the Palestinian leader built a police state and crushed all hope for democracy in the West Bank and Gaza.

To make matters more difficult, the Palestinians in the territories had, over more than a generation of Israeli rule, become intimately familiar with the workings of Israeli democracy and had benefited from an occupation that was more liberal in many respects than any Arab government.17 They enjoyed the freest press in the Arab world, based in eastern Jerusalem, and they sported a host of human rights organizations, scattered throughout Gaza, the West Bank, and Jerusalem, which had become internationally known for reporting on the practices of Israeli troops. Moreover, exposure to the chaotic workings of Israel’s Knesset and to the trial and appeal processes in Israel’s courts led Palestinian residents in the territories to develop views on power-sharing, pluralism, and the rule of law that were sharply at odds with those that Arafat and his colleagues were perfecting in Jordan, Lebanon, and Tunis.18

From the moment he received authority over Gaza-Jericho, Arafat therefore faced a series of challenges, which could not easily be overcome in the time available before elections were slated to take place. Consequently, he worked to expand this window of opportunity, and ultimately succeeded in pushing off elections until January 1996—thereby making what was to be a two-month transition into no less than twenty months, and giving him ten times as long to “election-proof” his regime by shoring up his position and undermining that of potential rivals.19

During this twenty-month period, Arafat worked feverishly to build his dictatorship on all fronts. Like all authoritarian rulers, he knew that everything depended on his ability to create a vast system of security services capable of crushing any opposition. In keeping with this understanding, the regime Arafat built in Gaza-Jericho was first and foremost a police state—and in fact, the size of Arafat’s police force may well have been its most impressive feature.

The Gaza-Jericho agreement signed by Israel and the PLO called for a maximum of 9,000 policemen, or one for every 83 residents of these areas, a substantial number by all accounts. Even so, Arafat quickly ignored this limit, building a force that reached more than 13,000 by December 1994 and 22,000 by August 1995—and that continued to climb steadily thereafter.20 This made Arafat’s police force larger, by two orders of magnitude, than the Fatah and Hamas militias that had previously been the dominant armed groups in the territories—each of which had only a few hundred armed men. This massive force created a stifling police presence throughout the still tiny Palestinian Authority, especially in Gaza, where there was one policeman for every 50 residents—which according to Amnesty International was “possibly the highest ratio of police to civil population in the world.”21

The Palestinian police were also distinguished by their political loyalty: At the core of Arafat’s force were 7,000 PLA fighters from abroad, who had been trained and stationed in a variety of Arab countries, had little interest in the niceties of pluralism, human rights, or civic freedoms, and had been almost entirely dependent on Yasser Arafat for decades—and therefore were beholden to him rather than to the residents of the West Bank and Gaza. These troops were deployed in May 1994 and became a conspicuous presence weeks before the establishment of the PA’s civilian wing and Arafat’s own entry into the territories in July.22 In addition, Arafat brought with him 125 members of the Presidential Guard, who specialized not only in protecting their leader but also in creating an atmosphere of fear that accompanied him wherever he went.23

Once the arrival of these imported forces had left local leaders outgunned and residents intimidated, Arafat began the task of cooptation, augmenting the PA police with locally staffed units commanded by officers loyal to Fatah and to the newly arrived PLO-Tunis leadership. The most successful of these forces was the Preventive Security Service (PSS), headed by Col. Muhammad Dahlan in Gaza and by Col. Jibril Rajoub in the West Bank. Rajoub, who has periodically been touted as a successor to Arafat, was not only an effective underling, but also a striking example of what the PLO leader was seeking to accomplish throughout the territories. A Fatah militant from the Hebron area, Rajoub had spent seventeen years in Israeli jails for terrorist activities, where he built a substantial network of contacts. After being deported by Israel in 1988, shortly after the outbreak of the Intifada, he joined Arafat’s staff in Tunis and was given responsibility for getting locally based militants to accept orders from the PLO.24 After the Oslo accords were signed, Rajoub resumed the task of making the “inside” subservient to the “outside,” but with the advantage of operating locally and with the sanction of the PA behind him. In doing so, he created what was essentially a government-backed Fatah militia, and declared openly that the PSS was “the practical expression of Fatah, since all its officers and personnel are Fatah members.”25 Many of his recruits were Intifada activists who had previously been loyal to the local leadership, including hundreds of Palestinians who had been jailed by Israel for involvement in terrorism and were released as part of the Oslo agreement.

Arafat guaranteed the loyalty of his troops, and especially the highest-ranking officers, by establishing the kind of command and control structure that had characterized his previous 25 years of rule, and which for good reason is preferred by military dictators anxious to prevent the rise of competitors. Though the Gaza-Jericho agreement limited the Palestinian police to four branches, coordinated in each district by a single command, Arafat set up multiple forces that competed with one another: By the summer of 1995, there were nine intelligence services operating in the West Bank and Gaza, as well as additional units with various responsibilities.26 There was no authority coordinating these forces on a regional basis, nor was there a clear hierarchy within each branch: The only thing that was unambiguous was that all top officers reported directly to Arafat, who was commander in chief of the PA police—and who continued wearing his trademark uniform to symbolize his authority as a military ruler.27 The multiplicity of units created endless turf wars, leading the various organizations to keep tabs on one another and to pass this information on to Arafat. Moreover, this Byzantine system made it possible for Arafat to order attacks against political opponents while publicly denying any involvement.

What made the PA security forces particularly effective in stifling dissent was their wide range of political activities. The intelligence units, especially the PSS, sought to identify opponents of Arafat and the PA, and to win their cooperation or their silence. Their officers engaged in numerous tactics that are off-limits to police in democratic states: Threatening political opponents, censoring the media, intimidating NGO leaders and human rights activists, and enforcing business monopolies given to Arafat’s allies. Though limited by the Oslo accords to the Gaza Strip and Jericho, Palestinian intelligence units boasting 5,000 men operated throughout the West Bank and eastern Jerusalem, which was the base of operations for the leading Palestinian newspapers and human-rights activists.28 Top-ranking Israeli security officials approved this departure from the written accords via the Rome Agreement, a secret understanding reached with Dahlan and Rajoub in January 1994, which conditioned the extra geographic latitude given to PA police on their pledge to fight Islamic and leftist militants planning attacks against Israelis from these areas.29 In fact, the PA police did little to combat terrorism aimed at Israelis, but were highly effective in silencing Arafat’s would-be critics, weakening potential challengers, and intimidating the local population.

With the security forces lined up foursquare behind him, Arafat was able to use them to enforce decisions made by the corrupt civilian government, to intimidate judges, to bring the media around to supporting the Palestinian Authority, and to persuade human rights activists to temper their criticism—in short, to shape the institutions of government and civil society in a manner most conducive to a dictatorial regime. It is to the first of these, the civilian government, which we now turn.


As with the police state he established, the administrative branch of Arafat’s government was a striking departure from what is accepted in democratic countries, and from what had preceded it. Under Israeli rule, a military government had made laws and appointed mayors and town council members throughout the territories, while a Civil Administration had employed 7,200 Arab residents in the Gaza Strip and a slightly larger number in the West Bank.30 Though hardly a model of efficiency or courtesy, the Civil Administration succeeded in delivering essential services in areas such as health, education, and transportation. In establishing the PA, Arafat sought to replace this bureaucracy with a patronage machine that would enable him to provide jobs and other remunerative opportunities for his supporters, while concentrating decision-making in his own hands.

As a crucial first step in building an administrative apparatus suitable for a personal dictatorship, Arafat made all the appointments to the Palestinian Authority’s 24-member governing body himself, and did so in accordance with his well-worn techniques of monopolizing authority: He chose himself as PA chairman, gave the eight most important ministries to high-ranking officials from the PLO-Tunis, filled another eight spots with Fatah loyalists from the territories, and used three positions to coopt individuals whose opposition he sought to prevent. In addition, he left five slots open, ostensibly for future bargaining with the Islamic and left-wing movements opposed to Oslo.31 He thus ensured an insuperable majority for himself and his supporters, while muting dissent and creating the impression of pluralism.

Since Arafat’s style of rule has always centered on control of the purse strings, he gave all three economic posts to PLO veterans from abroad. Abu Ala, a member of the Fatah Central Committee and director of Samed, the PLO’s financial arm, became minister of economics and trade; Nabil Sha’ath, a Fatah leader who headed the Political Committee of the PLO’s Palestine National Council, was made minister of planning and international cooperation and given responsibility for securing the 2.5 billion dollars in foreign aid that had been pledged to the PA; and Muhammad a-Nashashibi, a high-ranking PLO economic functionary and Executive Committee member, was designated finance minister.

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