The Arafat question

As angry Israelis call for the removal of the Palestinian leader, others caution that the alternative would be far worse.

Published December 4, 2001 8:21PM (EST)

In the wake of the bloodiest terror attacks against Israel in five years, the Israeli government officially declared the Palestinian Authority "an entity that supports terrorism" Monday night. At a special cabinet meeting convened by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to discuss practical steps against the Palestinians, Israel also announced that it would enlarge the scope of its retaliatory activities. In addition, Arafat's personal guards, known as Force 17, and the Tanzim militia affiliated with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's Fatah party were also declared terrorist organizations.

The declaration that the P.A. was a terrorist-supporting entity was more of a symbolic sanction against Arafat, a man who has worked hard to shed the image of arch-terrorist he acquired in the 1970s, than a decision bearing legal and economic implications. Even so,, angered members of the Labor Party, who chose to walk out of the five-hour long meeting, which ended after 2 a.m. early Tuesday morning.

The cabinet's decisions followed a number of retaliatory Israeli military actions that also aimed to damage Arafat's personal prestige. Just before dusk, 20 minutes before Palestinian Muslims sat down to break their Ramadan fast, Israeli helicopter gunships fired missiles and gunfire at targets in Gaza near Yasser Arafat's headquarters, destroying the Palestinian leader's two helicopters, damaging his helipad and setting hangars full of aviation fuel on fire. While billowing black smoke was shown on television rising above the skyline of Gaza City, an Israeli television commentator noted that this was "just the beginning." As the special cabinet meeting dragged on into the wee hours, Israeli bulldozers began tearing up the runway of Gaza's airport -- a symbol of Palestinian aspirations to statehood opened with great pomp in 1998.

Late Monday night, the Israeli army also moved into the West Bank city of Ramallah, where Arafat was spending the night at his West Bank headquarters.

After Palestinian terrorists launched back-to-back attacks that killed 26 Israelis and injured 175 in the space of 12 hours, everyone expected Sharon to heed strident calls for harsh military action against terrorists and the Palestinian Authority that harbors them. During his abbreviated trip to the United States, Sharon received more or less "carte blanche" to deal with Palestinian terrorism as he sees fit. In his meeting with Sharon on Sunday, President Bush did not attempt to dissuade Israel from responding militarily to the terrorist blows, nor did the president exact pressure on Israel to renew negotiations with Palestinians at a time of intense national grief and rage.

In addition to destroying Arafat's helicopters, a symbol of the Palestinian leader's authority, Israeli forces pummeled the headquarters of Palestinian security forces in Jenin (already in ruins) and hit the home of a Palestinian gunman in Bethlehem. During the day, Israel also forbade all Palestinians from using major roads in the West Bank and posted hundreds of additional policemen in the streets of Israeli cities to foil further terrorist attacks.

"Arafat is responsible for everything happening here. He chose a strategy of terrorism. He tried to achieve political goals through the murder of innocent people. Arafat chose the way of terror," said Sharon at a televised press conference Monday evening. "The Palestinians should know that the current situation to which Arafat has brought us hurts them most of all. We will chase those responsible for terror. We will chase them until we catch them and they will pay the price."

But it wasn't immediately clear how far Israel would go and to what degree it would punish Arafat personally for the most recent terrorist onslaught. Caught between right-wing calls to topple the Palestinian Authority and the need to preserve his left-right unity government as well as America's coalition against terrorism, Sharon put the full blame on Arafat's shoulders while stopping one step short of ordering his removal.

The scale and succession of the deadly terrorist blows this weekend were the worst since 1996, when a plague of terrorist attacks on Israeli buses followed the assassination of Yahya Ayyash, a leading Hamas bomb maker known as the "Engineer." (The 1996 attacks, which killed 60 Israelis, outraged the Israeli public and helped hard-liner Benyamin Netanyahu defeat then-Prime Minister Shimon Peres in the election that year.) This weekend's carnage came eight days after the assassination of another Hamas terrorist, the head of the Islamic organization's military branch in the West Bank. Although the police were on high alert and the military siege around West Bank towns had been seriously tightened in the wake of the assassination, there were deadly attacks in two northern Israeli towns during the week. On Saturday two Palestinians from a village near Jerusalem made their way into the city's crowded pocket-sized nightlife district and killed 10 young Israelis by detonating belts of explosives strapped to their bodies. A booby-trapped car shot up in flames a half-hour later in a well planned onslaught masterminded by Hamas.

Families and friends had not yet buried the teenage victims and hospitals were still busy treating scores of wounded people when a Palestinian blew himself up in a bus traveling Sunday through a residential neighborhood of Haifa, a city on the Mediterranean coast. The same morning, an Israeli settler was also shot dead in his car in Gaza. Israeli television channels used split screens to cover the unfolding dramas and had to clarify which emergency hotline to call in Jerusalem and Haifa.

"I'm usually an optimist," said Shevach Friedler, an Israeli doctor, on Sunday. "But on a day like this, what can you say?"

Israeli pundits were not at loss for words. Monday's newspapers were full of opinion pieces arguing the pros and cons of toppling Arafat's Palestinian Authority. Yaakov Erez, the editor in chief of Maariv, the second-largest Israeli daily, called for an unprecedented military offensive that would "obliterate Palestinian terror." In a front-page editorial, Erez, a former centrist, wrote: "Arafat cannot avoid responsibility and punishment for what is happening. The Israel Defense Forces must strike at terrorist concentrations with no restrictions and Arafat must pay the price -- in the personal sense."

In the same newspaper, Netanyahu, who has been breathing down Sharon's neck and vying for control of Israel's right wing, wrote: "It is unnecessary to wait days, weeks or months for Arafat to carry out his false promises. If Arafat does not crush the terrorist organizations to the foundation in the next few hours, including those who report to him directly (I doubt he will do so), Israel will have to destroy his regime."

Arafat's willingness to crack down on terrorists was once again the subject of intense scrutiny. Eager to keep Israeli retaliation within tolerable bounds, the Palestinian Authority quickly condemned the weekend's attacks and claimed it was making sweeping arrests and enforcing "martial law." But Israelis derided the efforts as a sham simply meant to buy Arafat international sympathy and time -- a repetition of the empty promises and mock arrests made after the deadly attack on a Tel Aviv disco in June, for example. According to security sources quoted by Israel Radio, out of the 100 militants arrested by Palestinian forces Sunday night, not even one was on Israel's most-wanted list, and some were not connected to terrorist organizations at all.

But even the arrests of small-time militants Sunday were met with riots and tense standoffs all over the West Bank. Arafat faces a severe dilemma: He risks suffering the brunt of an all-out Israeli war if he doesn't act decisively enough against Hamas, but faces the possibility of civil war if he does. (Hawkish New York Times columnist William Safire wrote on Monday that a Palestinian civil war is "necessary" to clarify whether Israel is dealing with terrorists or peaceful adversaries.) Analysts believe arresting top terrorists and crushing Hamas would mean political suicide for Arafat at a time when the radical organization enjoys widespread support and his own ratings have dipped. According to Khalil Shikaki, a Palestinian pollster, support for Arafat went down to 33 percent from 47 percent a year ago. Support for Islamic factions, meanwhile, has gone up from 17 percent to 27 percent.

Hamas didn't make things any easier for Arafat. On Sunday, it accused the P.A. of acting as "Israel's protector" and compared the P.A.'s raids to those performed by Israeli soldiers who knock at the door at night and terrorize the children.

In his speech Monday night, Sharon dispensed with the whole debate and did not even publicly request that Arafat make timely arrests. "For a long time people didn't understand what Arafat was all about. Now it is much clearer," he said. "Arafat is the biggest obstacle to peace and security in the Middle East. Arafat will not manage to fool us this time." Answering a reporter's question, Sharon added, "It is impossible for terrorist organizations to carry out their attacks without shelter, hiding places and financial assistance from Arafat. He has taken no steps (to eradicate them) and therefore we see Arafat as directly responsible."

Eran Lehrman, a former Israeli military intelligence analyst and now the head of the American Jewish Committee's Jerusalem office, said in a phone interview that Arafat had managed to avoid choosing between peace talks and terrorism for a long while and that only "acute pressure" could force him to relinquish violence. "Arafat in 1994 chose to maintain a double game, with the peace process and with Hamas (a group that advocates Israel's complete annihilation) and that has cost him dearly." Arafat, he added, "is a fence-sitter by nature. The fence long ago became part of his rear end. Between the Syrians and the Iraqis, between Saddam and the Americans, between Rabin [the late Israeli prime minister] and Yassin [the spiritual leader of Hamas], and now between Zinni [the American envoy] and Barghouti [a West Bank militant]. It's always one leg here and one leg there."

Foreign Minister Shimon Peres, a dove who has urged Sharon to resume negotiations with Arafat, attacked the Palestinian leader. "The primary problem is Arafat's credibility," said Peres in an interview with the Israeli mass-circulation daily Yedioth Ahronoth. "Every day there are four different editions and each is different from the last." But, he added, "removing Arafat is not the solution. It could create an alternative that is much worse and bring Hamas and Islamic Jihad down on us."

Mohammed Dahlan, the powerful head of the Palestinian preventive security agency in Gaza, echoed Peres' fears, warning recently that if Arafat were to be toppled, Israel would have to deal with "1,000 Tanzim fighters competing for power by proving who can commit the most deadly attacks against Israel."

The alternative to blind force is a mix of carrot and stick -- a mix favored by Peres and American diplomats, who fear that an all-out war against Arafat by Israel, America's close ally, would damage American interests in the region. Instead of rushing toward the abyss, Peres suggested, "We must combine the use of force against terror with diplomatic means in order to make Arafat take action against terror once and for all."

A significant diplomatic concern is the possible effect of an Israeli-Palestinian escalation on moderate Arab states. "If Israel hits Arafat, America's interests will be hurt," predicted Mustafa Khamis, a member of the Palestinian National Council. "The revolution will start again. Arab regimes like Egypt and Jordan will fall."

"For years we have been analyzing Arafat, his behavior and his intentions, asking if he's good for the Jews or not, and discussing with each other whether we should topple him or not. In the meantime, while we are busy sticking pins in his image, Arafat himself is becoming irrelevant," analyzed Ofer Shelah, in Yedioth Ahronoth. In Shelah's opinion, only the hope of reaching a political agreement can restore Arafat's popularity and give him the power to arrest militants that many Palestinians have come to regard as freedom fighters. "Today he does not have such support and forceful moves on Israel's part will not create it and will not coerce him into taking actions of which he is simply incapable," wrote Shelah.

Concurring with this view was Yossi Sarid, the head of Meretz, a left-wing faction in the Israeli parliament. "It would be a mistake to believe that what was not achieved by force can be achieved with even more force," Sarid wrote, in a piece that appeared in the opinion pages of Maariv on Monday. "The Israeli occupation is a factory for terror, and this factory must be locked up with a diplomatic lock -- not with a 5-kilo hammer."

But Sarid's is a minority point of view in Israel. Calls for ending the occupation in order to drain the swamp of terrorism are seen as naive by many Israelis who have lost faith in their Palestinian neighbors. "Nothing we can offer will deter [groups like Hamas] from choosing the option of jihad," said Lehrman. "The only thing we can do is to crush them militarily." Egypt, Syria and Algeria defeated Islamic fundamentalists by way of confrontation, he noted, and the fall of Kabul is already forcing Hezbollah in Lebanon to modify its tone and distance the movement from losers like Osama bin Laden. "Islamists are not in the field of pressures and counter-pressures, negotiations and bargaining cards. There is no way to mollify them."

"At the end of the day Palestinians and Israelis will have to sit down and negotiate a solution," said Lehrman. "The point is, what kind of political hope are we talking about?" Proposals made at Camp David last summer, which were already problematic for a large part of Israeli public opinion, were insufficient for Palestinians. But if Israelis adopt the language of political hope, Palestinians will insist on "real hope," he noted, one that satisfies every one of their demands -- including the return of refugees to Israel, which would eventually lead to Israel no longer being a Jewish state.

"If you set foot on the slippery slope of conditionality, you kill off chances to end the violence," he said. Lehrman's approach to cessation of violence echoes that of the U.S.-sponsored Mitchell Report, which called for an immediate end to violence as an end in itself, saving confidence-building measures and negotiations for later (it also called for Israel to discontinue building settlements in the occupied territories). Israel's request for seven days of calm is often seen as a trick to postpone negotiations indefinitely, said Lehrman. "But in fact it's a bitter lesson learned when Israel tried to negotiate under fire between September 2000 and January 2001 [when Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak was in power]. All you did was feed the appetite for violence."

By Flore de Preneuf

Flore de Preneuf is a Jerusalem writer and photographer.

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