As Yasser Arafat stares out of the window of his Ramallah headquarters at the nearby Israeli tanks, at the clouds of tear gas drifting by and at the daily gun battles between his supporters and soldiers, he must be wondering what happened to the dream of Palestinian statehood that once looked so attainable. He is reported to have told his security people that they are to make a last stand if the Israeli troops, who have kept him virtually a captive for weeks, move even closer toward his office. Few have any illusions that if it comes to that, the largely symbolic resistance will be blown away by the Israelis, just like all the other symbols of Palestinian sovereignty that have been rolled back systematically over the past year.
In front of Arafat's Ramallah headquarters on Thursday, Palestinian teenagers climbed atop a bus shelter to attach a red, black, white and green Palestinian flag in the sight of the Israelis. It was eerily reminiscent of scenes during the first intifada in the late '80s, when the Palestinian Authority (PA) was not yet around and the then-banned flags were one of the few ways to express Palestinians' aspiration to statehood. Now, with Arafat surrounded, and important symbols such as the radio studios and the Gaza airport in rubble, it looks as if the Palestinian dreams of sovereignty have literally been set back by decades.
Just how much the PA's hold has crumbled became clear earlier this week, on Monday, when Israeli tanks and bulldozers blocked off the entrance to the house of Mahmoud Jallad, mayor of the West Bank city of Tulkarm. "The soldiers knocked on the door at 4 in the morning," Jallad was able to tell reporters over the telephone. His house was occupied and he and his family were placed under house arrest. "They made me, my wife and my two children stand outside in the cold for three hours while they searched our house," he said. It was the first time the Israeli army had reoccupied an entire Palestinian city. Mayor Jallad had an explanation for why they took over his house: "To show all of Tulkarm, all Palestinians and especially President Arafat that they can do what they want." The army withdrew the following morning, but the message had been sent.
The Israelis move at will through areas that were supposedly handed over to the PA under the Oslo peace agreements. There they arrest or kill people on their wanted list, as they did in Nablus on Wednesday when four members of the militant Islamic group Hamas died when troops attacked a presumed bomb-making facility. Late in the evening on Thursday, Israeli forces undertook another targeted assassination. Helicopter gunships fired two missiles into the car of Bakar Hamdan, a senior Hamas official in the Southern Gaza strip, killing him and wounding two others. A Hamas response to both incidents is inevitable, which means the fundamentalist movement's cease-fire agreement with the PA is now definitively scrapped. Israel's army and its political decision-makers could not have made it any clearer that in their view the PA has indeed become irrelevant.
What is perhaps most surprising about the unprecedented Israeli assault on the Palestinian Authority is how completely the United States has gone along with it. While the international community, including the United States, issued howls of protest over the first Israeli incursions into Palestinian territory last year, now whole cities can be reoccupied for more than a day with full American support. On Thursday, White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said President Bush "understands the reason that Israel has taken the action that it takes, and it is up to Chairman Arafat to demonstrate the leadership to combat terrorism."
But the Israeli assaults have brought the PA to the brink of extinction, destroying any hope that it would be able to control militants. In fact, with the PA pushed to the side, support for the militants is growing among an increasingly enraged and desperate population. After the Israeli action in Nablus, thousands of furious residents stormed the local prison and the governor's compound. They broke through the metal fence and attempted to free anti-Israeli militants who had been detained by the PA in the past weeks. "Prisons are not for Hamas," the demonstrators chanted. One of them was killed in the confrontation with the Palestinian police.
In the wake of the Israeli raid that killed four of its members, Hamas immediately pledged a resumption of the devastating attacks inside Israel that had presumably been suspended since mid-December. The movement promised a "fierce war" against "Zionist gangs," using all the means at its disposal.
Just hours later, in the already hard-hit center of Jerusalem, a Palestinian gunman sprayed Israeli passersby with bullets, killing two and wounding dozens. Israelis have almost become accustomed to these scenes, with 10 fatalities from shootings the week before. As usual, the Israeli government held the PA and Arafat directly responsible. A spokesman called the attack "a continuation of the terrorist campaign against Israeli civilians, women and children, committed by terrorist organizations with the passive or active encouragement of the Palestinian Authority." Many speculated that the shooting would set the stage for further Israeli action against the PA, which would then trigger more attacks against Israel.
Both Israel Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Yasser Arafat seem to have chosen to engage in permanent, low-level confrontation rather than to make painful political concessions. Right now, Sharon and his right-wing followers have the upper hand in their attempt to beat down the Palestinians' national aspirations. Despite Palestinians' criticism of Arafat, they still regard him as Mr. Palestine, the living symbol of their struggle. By showing he is impotent in the face of Israel's might, Sharon hopes to dash the Palestinians' hopes of statehood.
The immediate effect, however, is that many Palestinians are turning away from Arafat's tactics and are embracing those of his more militant opponents. Many Palestinians linked the Jerusalem attack with the events earlier that day in Nablus, even though Fatah's Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, not Hamas, claimed responsibility for the attack. "I don't like this," a Jerusalem Palestinian who himself frequently moves through the city center said after the attack, "but the Israelis have to understand that if they do what they did in Nablus, they can expect to be killed themselves. That is the only way that we are going to get them to stop. Arafat does not offer an alternative."
In Tulkarm earlier in the week, politicians and ordinary people who could not understand why the PA had not resisted the Israeli incursion more forcefully expressed similar sentiments. While machine-gun fire echoed through the narrow streets of the Tulkarm refugee camp at the edge of the city, a group of Palestinian militants shouted their defiance at Israeli tanks at the camp's perimeter. "If you are a man you will come down from your tank and we'll teach you a lesson," one Palestinian, who would only give his name as Khaled, shouted derisively at the Israelis. Most of the militants on Israel's wanted list had escaped to the camp, a warren of narrow streets and jerry-built houses, in the early hours of the incursion. "We will fight the tanks, if necessary with our bare hands," said Khaled, "not like the Authority people, who don't do anything." The black smoke of burning tires and more machine-gun fire attested to the determination of the resistance. In the end, the Israelis vindicated the militants' stance. The army left the camp alone, saying that it would have absorbed casualties had the troops gone in. The failure of the army to enter the camp and arrest the wanted militants also proved that the reoccupation was largely an exercise in symbolism.
Not far from the camp, the villa of Hassan Khreisheh, a member of the Palestinian Legislative Council for Tulkarm, afforded a view of the surrounding hills, dotted with Israeli tanks. "Of course the PA cannot fight tanks with machine guns. We are powerless," he said. Khreisheh, though belonging to Arafat's Fatah movement, blames the Palestinian leader for his people's troubles. "We did not build any institutions; the PA is a one-man show," he said. The lawmaker signed a petition in 1999, condemning undemocratic practices and corruption in the PA. He said Arafat's men threatened him because of it. "Many people are against Arafat, against all his concessions to the Israelis, against the way he runs the PA. But if we are going to change our leaders it should be through democratic means, not because of Israeli pressure."
On Monday, the only oasis of power for the PA in Tulkarm was the governor's residence. Ezzedin Sharif, clearly a Fatah man to the bone, put a brave face on the fact that the Israelis had left him alone. "I am the direct representative of President Arafat. If they move against me, it is like moving against him." He seemed completely bewildered by the developments in his city. "The Israelis say this is a center of terrorism, but in the six years since I became governor, I didn't see any terrorists," he maintained. "Tulkarm was even the favorite town for Israeli weekend shoppers before the intifada. Would they have come if there were terrorists here?" Outside, one of his armed guards looked about nervously. "An Israeli jeep comes by every 30 minutes with a megaphone announcing a curfew. We'd rather not run into them."