Israel cut off contact with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat early Thursday and launched military operations in the West Bank and Gaza to crack down on militants, blaming Arafat for the latest bloody attacks that killed 10 Israelis and wounded more than 30 others.
A statement released after Israel's Security Cabinet met in Tel Aviv said Arafat is "directly responsible for the series of attacks and therefore is no longer relevant to Israel, and Israel will no longer have any connection with him."
Justice Minister Meir Sheetrit said there would be no more contact with Arafat or his Palestinian Authority. He added that Israel had no plans to kill Arafat.
The larger political ramifications of Israel's move remained unclear. But its action in cutting off contact with Arafat, and possibly the Palestinian Authority which is charged with governing part of the occupied West Bank and Gaza territories on an interim basis under the 1993 Oslo agreement, probably represented a 10-year low in official Israeli-Palestinian relations, and gave rise to renewed speculation about the fate of the Palestinian Authority leader. While increasing numbers of Israelis have apparently come to believe that any alternative would be preferable to Arafat, many analysts, Israeli and Palestinian, argue that removing the 72-year-old Palestinian leader would only further destabilize the deteriorating situation.
The developments made a mockery of the latest American efforts to bring both sides to a cease-fire. U.S. envoy Anthony Zinni has spent the last two weeks trying to implement a truce agreed to last May. He has set up three meetings of Israeli and Palestinian security commanders, but the sessions have reportedly degenerated into shouting matches, with each side blaming the other for continuing violence. The latest violence followed Zinni's call for 48 hours of peace.
The first attack took place Wednesday evening, when a bus traveling near a Jewish settlement in the northern West Bank hit an explosive charge and was sprayed with gunfire by Palestinian assailants. Two of the people killed in the shooting, which continued after medics and Israeli soldiers arrived on the scene, were soldiers. Almost at the same time, two suicide bombers struck at settlers in Gaza, wounding four people. The attacks followed an Israeli tank raid into the West Bank city of Jenin and the death, overnight, of four Palestinians in Gaza whom Israel accused of firing mortars into Israeli settlements.
In response to the Palestinian attacks, the Israeli Security Cabinet authorized widespread military operations to arrest militants and seize weapons. Israeli forces launched an incursion into the southern Gaza Strip and fired tank shells at a Palestinian checkpoint in the West Bank city of Ramallah. Earlier, Israeli missiles pounded Arafat's beachfront presidential compound in Gaza, a naval building in northern Gaza and the passenger terminal at the Palestinian airport in southern Gaza. Palestinians say a 65-year-old woman was killed in these strikes.
Feeling the heat from American envoy Anthony Zinni, who asked Arafat and the Palestinian Authority to move immediately against terrorist groups, Palestinian officials decided at a cabinet meeting in Ramallah late Wednesday night to close down all institutions belonging to Hamas and Islamic Jihad. If the order is implemented, it would presumably silence for the first time the movements' political leaders (not just outlaw their military branches, as the Palestinian Authority has done numerous times in the past) and affect their charitable organizations.
Like many previous Palestinian attacks in the current intifada, Wednesday's killings were conceived as acts of revenge for Israeli strikes. The Palestinian Authority issued a routine statement condemning the attacks, although an armed group called the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, which is affiliated with Arafat's mainstream Fatah party, claimed responsibility for the bus ambush, as did the radical group Hamas. Just as mechanically, Israel blamed Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat for the attacks and began firing missiles at targets in Gaza in response.
But by breaking off contact with Arafat, Israel upped the ante it threw on the table when it accused him and the P.A. earlier this month of supporting terrorism. The latest developments, both politically and militarily, carried a growing risk that the two sides would depart from the well-worn scenario and usher in an ominous new phase in the almost 15-month-old intifada. Since last week, when Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon called Arafat "the greatest obstacle to peace and stability in the Middle East" following terrorist attacks that killed 26 people in Haifa and Jerusalem on Dec. 1 and 2, the attacks on Arafat have become far more intense.
Almost 20 years after Sharon, then Israel's defense minister, tried to eliminate the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and its leader by invading Lebanon and ultimately bombing Arafat's headquarters in Beirut, Israeli helicopter gunships came after the Palestinian leader's assets in Gaza and in the West Bank, destroying his helicopters, helipad and airstrip. In an intimidating show of force, an Israeli helicopter moved toward a building in Ramallah in which Arafat was sitting at the time and fired missiles into the office next door. Although Sharon stopped short of killing the head of the Palestinian Authority, an entity he has compared to the Taliban regime because it harbors terrorists, the bombings were clearly intended to underscore Arafat's physical vulnerability.
The blows, so far, have been mostly diplomatic -- but Arafat has also inflicted some on himself. A few days after the Israeli bombings went ahead, with the virtual blessing of the United States, Arafat apparently lost all self-control and blurted on Israel's Channel One, waving his hands hysterically: "Good lord! What do I care about the Americans! The Americans are on your side and they gave you everything. Who gave you the planes? The Americans! Who gave you the tanks? The Americans! Who gives you money? The Americans! Don't talk to me about the Americans." The interview, aired at prime time Friday night, startled Israelis, who suddenly saw Arafat as a raging, aging fool, not the formidable mastermind and nemesis they imagined nor the kind of negotiating partner they hoped for.
Perhaps even more humiliatingly for Arafat, the European Union's foreign ministers put out an unusually tough-worded statement on Monday in which they asked him to dismantle the terrorist infrastructures of Hamas and Islamic Jihad and to call --in Arabic -- for the end of the intifada. The statement implied that Europeans were fed up with Arafat's double game, in which the leader says one thing in English for foreign consumption and another in Arabic for his domestic audience. Although balanced by a call for Israel to stop building settlements and cease its practice of "extra-judicial" executions -- appeals noticeably lacking from the U.S. demands to Arafat -- the statement carried special sting because Europe has traditionally been sympathetic to the Palestinian argument that resistance to Israeli occupation is a legitimate struggle.
This combination of strikes, clownish missteps and diplomatic pressure has many people wondering whether Arafat's days may be numbered and given new urgency to the old question of who might represent the Palestinians if Arafat were to fall from power.
Right-wing politicians and even many centrist Israelis have come to believe that anything would be better than Arafat, whom they see as conning the world into thinking he wants peace while doing nothing to stop terrorist attacks. (In a poll published last Friday in the newspaper Maariv, 56 percent of Israeli respondents said they "support Israel's attempt to remove Yasser Arafat from power.") Others believe toppling Arafat would mean total anarchy in the occupied territories. Although Shimon Peres, Israel's dovish foreign minister, says he has run out of patience with his old friend's antics, he warned in an opinion piece recently that getting rid of Arafat "could create an alternative that is much worse and bring Hamas and Islamic Jihad down on us."
The popularity of Hamas and Islamic Jihad, two militant groups that target Israeli civilians and, unlike Arafat, oppose compromise with Israel, has soared since the beginning of the intifada in October 2000. In part, these groups have filled a need Arafat's Palestinian Authority has neglected: They provide an extensive and efficient network of social services in the impoverished West Bank and Gaza -- something Arafat's Palestinian Liberation Organization has become too corrupt to deliver properly. Many Palestinians, humiliated and enraged by 34 years of Israeli occupation, also support, or at least applaud, Hamas suicide bombers and other military activities that keep up the Palestinian score in the killing game played by the two sides. (According to Reuters news agency, the tally is 764 Palestinians dead to 223 dead Israelis.)
Meanwhile, Arafat's ratings and those of his corrupt, ineffectual Palestinian Authority, have plummeted. And by stripping him of his helicopters and airstrip last week, Israel has attempted to weaken him further. "The strikes were designed to destroy the symbols of power that were granted to Arafat by the Oslo peace process and to return him to his former status of head of the PLO [as opposed to heading the Palestinian Authority]," said Gerald Steinberg, an Israeli security analyst at Israel's Bar-Ilan University. "Now Arafat is grounded."
Forced to his knees, Arafat reluctantly ordered the arrest of dozens of militants and a handful of key terrorists, an unpopular move that "plays into Hamas' hands," said Ghassan Khatib, a Palestinian analyst in Jerusalem. Many Palestinians violently reject the arrests of men they regard as freedom fighters at a time when they feel the need to strike back at Israel. Hundreds of Hamas supporters flexed their muscles last Wednesday when their spiritual leader, Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, was put under house arrest by Palestinian police. A Hamas supporter was killed in the ensuing scuffle.
Still, most analysts believe the risk of Palestinian civil war and a political takeover by Islamic radical groups, the two perils mentioned by people who argue Arafat should be cut some slack, is overblown. After last week's bombardments, "many people subscribe to his point of view that we should save ourselves from an all-out war [with Israel] and take painful measures. Others don't like it," said Ziad Abu Amr, a member of the Palestinian Legislative Council and a political scientist based in Gaza. "The street is divided between resentment and understanding, but that doesn't mean there is a risk of a civil war."
"The risk of civil war is exaggerated, but there is a breaking point," said Khatib. "Arafat has to be careful in his arrests." Those Palestinians who tolerate arrests do so in large part because they understand the measures are temporary, merely cosmetic and in no way signal the end of the armed intifada. But if Arafat moves too forcefully against popular heroes or arrests people only to have Israeli helicopters target the police stations and prisons in which they are kept (something Israel has done in the past), the mood on the street could turn irrevocably hostile.
However, the end of Arafat wouldn't necessarily signal the rise of a radical Islamic regime. Analysts note that Palestinian society is traditional but not fundamentalist. Regional conditions also make a radical Islamic regime very unlikely "unless you want to live in isolation like the Taliban," said Abu Amr. "We're surrounded by Israel, Jordan, Egypt -- moderate regimes who would see a threat in the rise of a radical Palestinian regime. Who would support this regime? We depend on donations and material support from around the world. So the Hamas project has no chance of succeeding, unless they become moderate themselves."
For Steinberg, the author of an article headlined the "End of the Arafat Era" in the Jerusalem Post last week, the benefits of turning the page outweigh the risks. "Almost all alternatives to Arafat would be more pragmatic -- including Hamas, which would be motivated by self-interest and survival" to come to a sort of modus vivendi with Israel.
Possible successors to Arafat include Mohammed Dahlan, head of Preventive Security in Gaza; Jibril Rajoub, the security chief in the West Bank; Abu Mazen, Arafat's No. 2; and Abu Ala, Arafat's chief negotiator at Oslo. Although the last two are men of Arafat's generation, Rajoub and Dahlan, both in their 40s, have extensive experience working with Israeli security services and the CIA, have cracked down on Hamas in the past and are thought of as more pragmatic than the old leader.
"These people are not necessarily more reasonable in their demands but more realistic than Arafat. They understand the situation and care for the welfare of Palestinians," said Steinberg. In particular, Israelis have been heartened by Rajoub's ability to produce quiet in the Bethlehem region after Israeli tanks pulled out recently. Dahlan, for his part, earned brownie points with Israelis last summer during peace negotiations at Camp David when he showed more flexibility and openness than anyone else in the Palestinian delegation. "We might see Rajoub against Dahlan or a coalition of the two to consolidate their power," said Steinberg. "Now we basically have anarchy controlled by Arafat who gives a green or yellow light to terror, tells various groups 'do what you want, just don't tell me about it' and does nothing against terror when he does hear about it."
But most Palestinians believe Arafat is the only one who can hold the different threads of Palestinian society together. Israel's belief that it will find local, more pliable leaders -- part of a plan to effectively divide Palestine into a collection of Bantustans -- is preposterous, said Khatib: "It's what they tried to do since 1967. They tried mukhtars [a sort of mayor], intellectuals, municipal councils, all kinds of people, but they failed," he said. (The height of Israel's attempt to provide an alternative leadership to the PLO came in 1981 and '82, when the Begin administration fired pro-PLO mayors and tried to set up a network of so-called village leagues in the occupied territories. The attempt failed miserably.) "I don't know why people assume Rajoub and Dahlan would be different from Arafat -- they're his left and his right arms, they have similar views. Part of it is wishful thinking from Israel. Part of it is also that Israelis feel they helped elevate them to their current position [through the Oslo process] so they believe they own them. It's part of their colonial mentality."
"None of the names mentioned as potential successors to Arafat has any independent power base, even in their local environments," said Abu Amr. "None can fly over all Palestinian sectors of society like Arafat. Even Arafat, with all his legitimacy and charisma, can barely manage." It may be precisely because he is such an expert fence-sitter -- a character trait that enrages outsiders who wish he would choose between peace deals and violence -- that Arafat has managed to ride the moods of the Palestinian street and survived so long.
However much Israelis distrust and dislike Arafat, Abu Amr cautions against plotting to overthrow him. "What happens after Arafat depends on the way he's disposed of. If he is killed or removed by force, it will be very difficult for any successor to enjoy Palestinian legitimacy. A person installed by Israel would be viewed as a traitor and could be killed. Getting rid of Arafat means Israel would reestablish its administration of the occupied territories, so his successor would be a quisling, unable to ensure political stability for Palestinians, let alone security for Israelis. It's a very risky and dangerous way of thinking."
"Sharon is playing with fire and that's why Sharon will not do it," concurred Khatib. "The Israeli security establishment and intelligence services know very well that getting rid of Arafat won't help them reach their objectives. That's why they did not send a missile in his lap although they could easily have."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.