(KRT) The sudden decline in Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's health Wednesday night has widened a power vacuum that has already grown into a chasm in the Palestinian West Bank and Gaza Strip, and opens the real possibility of chaos and civil war in one of the world's most dangerous regions.
Arafat, 75, who has been struggling with what doctors say is severe flu and gallstones, weakened significantly Wednesday night, heightening concerns that Palestinians are ill-prepared for their leader's death.
The passing of the 75-year-old Palestinian leader would be an event on the scale of the death of Cuban leader Fidel Castro. As president of the Palestinian Authority and chairman of the Palestinian Liberation Organization, Arafat has no equal and no one shares his stature or legacy.
Notorious for keeping his own counsel and pushing away those who threaten him, Arafat has not groomed a successor. And the expected chaos that Arafat's passing would trigger within the Palestinian territories could further confound the already-complicated calculus of the Middle East peace process.
Since the breakdown of Israeli-Arab peace talks in 2000, the Palestinian uprising known as the Second Intifada has caused the deaths of some 3,400 Palestinians and nearly 1,000 Israelis. Now entering its fifth year, the tensions show no sign of abating and there is little hope of a formal peace.
Even before the announcement of the Arafat's rapid decline Wednesday evening, factional fighting had left several cities in [Arab areas] under the control of warring factions in the last year. In Jenin, a young firebrand named Zakaria Zubeidi has run the city for months, and has driven out other Palestinian officials.
In other cities, mayors have been run out of town, while other leaders have been killed by militants who are forging links with criminal gangs. There are few functioning municipal authorities and few signs of police authority.
In Gaza, where Israeli settlers and soldiers control 42 percent of the land, Arafat's deputies have been threatened with assassination, and angry militants have attacked members of his Fatah movement. Security agents loyal to Gaza strongman Mohammed Dahlan, 43, who has presidential ambitions, have clashed with supporters of another security chief, Arafat relative Moussa Arafat.
Meanwhile, reformers in the Palestinian legislature have launched investigations of corruption linked to the chairman's cronies, including one scheme in which cement destined for Palestinian construction projects ended up being used to build the unpopular barricade that Israel is erecting along its border with the West Bank.
Local elections in Palestinian towns are scheduled for December, and Arafat's Fatah movement is facing a serious challenge from Islamic parties. If he dies, Palestinians leaders said Wednesday, it's unclear if the situation would hold together for elections.
One dire sign of that loss of cohesion is the presence of outside groups exploiting the Palestinian leadership vacuum, most notably the Iranian-backed guerrilla group Hezbollah, which has been lending explosives expertise to militants in Gaza, say Israeli military sources.
While diplomats tend to discuss possible successors among the polished, urbane Palestinian political class, any realistic effort to understand what's next will have to take into account the Palestinian street, which is where the real power resides. And there is little indication thus far that any single leader can stem the political erosion Arafat and his supporters are already facing.
Under Palestinian law, there is a clear line of succession in the event Arafat dies. But those in line to succeed him are either not well known on the street, or are disliked by average Palestinians. By law, the Palestinian parliament speaker would replace Arafat as Palestinian Authority president for 60 days, until elections are held.
But current speaker Rauhi Fattouh is a considered an uninspiring leader. It's uncertain whether he could hold on until elections could be organized. Arafat's other post as PLO chief would be filled, at least temporarily, by his deputy in the organization, Mahmoud Abbas, a former prime minister who resigned last year after power struggles with Arafat.
Current Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia is given little chance of taking the reins of power. A former parliament speaker, Qureia lost much of his prestige with his new job.
The death of Arafat would put to the test what has been the common wisdom among Israeli leaders for years now that his removal will open up new opportunities for peace with a younger generation of Palestinian leaders. The problem with this theory is that over the last four years of the intifada, Israel's massive military operations and assassinations of Palestinian militants have consistently undermined Palestinian moderates in the eyes of many Palestinians.
One of the most popular Palestinian figures is sitting in an Israeli prison, serving five life sentences for involvement in shooting attacks on Israelis. Marwan Barghouti, 47, speaks fluent Hebrew and is well known to diplomats, is a leader of Fatah's young guard.
Barghouti supports a two-state solution for Israelis and Palestinians and there are signs that Israeli leaders have spoken with him at length in prison. But it's unclear whether Sharon, currently under political siege for his Gaza withdrawal plans, could take the unpopular step of freeing a convicted terrorist.
Some fear that would could emerge, in the absence of a clear successor to Arafat, is a militant Islamic republic on the border of the Jewish state.
If that happens, the clear winners will be Hamas, a terrorist group whose top leadership has been wiped out by Israel over the last year, but which continues to grow in size and stature. There is little doubt that open elections in Gaza would result in the ascension of Hamas leaders, who are viewed by many Palestinians not only as brave and steadfast, but perhaps most importantly, as honest and free of corruption.
"On the one hand, the public is not highly confident in Arafat's leadership, but it does not have an alternative," said Khalil Shikaki, a leading Palestinian pollster and analyst. "Therefore, at the moment, there is indeed a very serious crisis with regard to whom the public can trust."