Exiling peace

Ariel Sharon is smashing the Palestinian Authority and hopes to expel Yasser Arafat. But he may be opening the door to leaderless zealots whose fury will make today's atrocities look mild.

By Ferry Biedermann
Published April 4, 2002 1:32AM (EST)

"If anything happens to Yasser Arafat we will all take up arms, and this family has hundreds of members." Hisham Barghouti is furious about the Israeli assault on the Palestinian leader, still isolated in his Ramallah headquarters, just a few miles away to the south of this almost-picturesque village.

He is also furious because the crackdown has reached his family. Kobar is the birthplace of another Palestinian leader, Hisham's brother Marwan Barghouti, the secretary general of Arafat's Fatah movement in the West Bank and the head of its Tanzim militia. Israel says he is also the leading figure in the feared Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, which is responsible for the latest wave of suicide bombings, and its troops swept through Kobar over the weekend hunting for him. During the sweep, soldiers rounded up residents and interrogated Barghouti family members, but ultimately let them go, while detaining 18 people. "If Marwan is hurt we will fight, not because he is family, but because he is one of our leaders," says Hisham.

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has made clear his intentions: He wants to decapitate the Palestinian Authority and Arafat's Fatah movement. He is trying to arrest Barghouti, who controls Fatah on the West Bank. He has humiliated Jibril Rajoub, the powerful chief of preventive security on the West Bank -- and a favored U.S. ally for a time after the Oslo accords -- by attacking his headquarters. Most significantly, he is making it plain that he wants Arafat out of the country, permanently. Israeli and Palestinian analysts alike predict chaos -- and the end of any kind of peace process for the foreseeable future -- if Arafat and his Palestinian Authority are taken out of the picture.

A piece of chilling TV footage broadcast Tuesday showed Sharon seemingly joking around with the army chief of staff, Shaul Mofaz. "We have to expel Arafat, we have to seize this occasion and get rid of him," says Mofaz. Sharon laughs and replies that he is looking for a way to do just that. Later Sharon said European countries could at any time send a helicopter to pick up the Palestinian leader but it would be "a one-way ticket." Sharon's own minister of foreign affairs, Shimon Peres, was furious at the exile plan. The Cabinet had voted against such a proposal. Palestinian reactions were scathing; Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erakat said that no Palestinian would voluntarily accept exile.

The U.S. has spoken out against Sharon's plan. Secretary of State Colin Powell said Tuesday that Arafat still has a role to play and that "sending him into exile will just give him another place from which to conduct the same kinds of activities and give the same messages that he is giving now." Powell said that Arafat was recognized as the leader of the Palestinians and that he would remain so abroad. "It seems to me that we need to work with him where he is -- and where he is, is Ramallah," Powell said.

But the Israelis are continuing to prepare world opinion for the ultimate crackdown on Arafat. Spokesmen showed reporters a document seized in a Ramallah office of the P.A. that they said proved the Palestinian leader's involvement with the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades. It is said to be a letter from a Brigades commander requesting funds from Fuad Shubeiki, the P.A.'s main financial officer and an assistant to Arafat. In the letter the commander specifies "the cost of supplying electronic and chemical components for explosive devices and bombs -- this was our largest expense. The cost of preparing a bomb is at least NIS [New Israeli shekels] 700. We need to equip five to nine bombs each week for our cells in various locations."

The document has not been authenticated and it is not clear whether the funds, if they were requested, were ever transferred to the Brigades. Shubeiki is also said to be responsible for the arms smuggling affair in January with the Karine A ship that was intercepted by the Israelis.

The ongoing Israeli military offensive, with troops now in Qalqilya, Beit Jala, Bethlehem, Tulkarem and Jenin as well as Ramallah, has not yet succeeded in its stated objective of bringing security to Israel. On Monday a police officer was killed near the center of Jerusalem when he stopped a suicide bomber. Another was caught on Tuesday, trying to sneak into Israel. There's no evidence yet that the Palestinians are giving up, or that their capacity to mount these operations has been decisively eroded. In a grim reminder, three more people died on Tuesday from wounds they sustained during earlier suicide attacks.

"This military offensive is not going to bring Israel security," insists Yossi Alpher, an Israeli strategic analyst and co-editor of bitterlemons.org, an Israeli-Palestinian Internet dialogue project. The action is doomed, says Alpher, because it is not accompanied by a political component. "Sharon has been trying to manipulate the Arabs by force since he entered public life. It has not worked and it is not working with the Palestinians."

Isolating Yasser Arafat or removing him from the scene is a "totally misconceived strategy," says Alpher, who is also a former Mossad officer. He does not have much sympathy for the besieged Palestinian leader, whom he accuses of employing "monstrous violence" to achieve his political aims. For now, though, the isolation and the siege in Ramallah only enhance his popularity. Alpher agrees with Powell that Arafat would remain the leader of the Palestinian people even from abroad, and he thinks Sharon is mistaken if he expects Arafat will be replaced by a more flexible young leadership with which he can do business.

Khalil Shikaki, a Palestinian political analyst based in Ramallah, concurs. "If Arafat is exiled or killed, a younger generation of leaders will emerge who will only go the way of violence and who will not have a political option," he says. The new leaders will not be nearly as coherent a group as the Palestinian Authority, and will even be much less unified than the current joint leadership of the intifada, fears Shikaki, who is the director of the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research. "When Arafat is removed from the scene there will no longer be a Palestinian address," emphasizes Shikaki. Despite everything the Israelis accuse the Palestinian leader of, at least he constantly says that he is willing to resume negotiations. Shikaki agrees with Alpher that the Palestinians need a political force in order to be able to stop the violence and resume the peace process. "If Arafat is removed, the new leaders will certainly feel that the only option is violence and it will take years before they themselves develop a peace option."

Alpher contends that the current operation against the P.A. has always been in Sharon's plans, because the prime minister has no political vision to offer and needs to provoke the Palestinians so that he can take ever more far-reaching action. "When Sharon talks of what is on offer after a cease-fire, he talks essentially of freezing the status quo on the West Bank and call it a Palestinian state. That is not acceptable to anyone on the other side."

Shikaki fears that undermining the P.A. already is causing damage to its ability to lead the Palestinians back into negotiations. "If they cannot provide services to the population and distribute funds and pay salaries, that gap will be filled by others, and the only ones who are there are the Islamic fundamentalists and the radical opposition." If the P.A. and Arafat reestablish control, he believes that the majority can still be made to go along with a new peace process, despite the effects of the current military offensive.

"Today they let us out for a few hours," says Shikaki, who is based in the center of Ramallah. "After five days they lifted the curfew for a few hours to let us buy food, they said. Apparently they forgot to tell the bakers because we couldn't find bread anywhere and the supermarkets are also running out of basic foodstuff. We still don't have electricity and most places haven't had water for five days."

In Kobar, the Barghouti family village near Ramallah, people also say water has been cut off. In a smaller version of the events in Ramallah and other West Bank towns, the soldiers stormed into Kobar over the weekend. "They made us stand outside our homes in the middle of the night, in the cold without having given us a chance to get dressed," recounts Hisham Barghouti. In all some 150 men were interrogated by the Israelis in the village square. Hisham says the soldiers asked him if he knew Marwan's whereabouts and said they would keep him in custody until they caught his brother.

They let him and most of the others go after seven hours, but detained 18 people. Among them, the Israelis say, was a wanted militant, Yasser Shanan. One of the Barghouti cousins, Muharam, ridicules that idea, though: "They just arrested some people because they have to say that the operation served some purpose, but they didn't get anything."

Hisham's son, Tamer, was injured in the beginning of the intifada by an Israeli bullet while throwing stones at soldiers. At his father's urging he shows impressive scars on his back and abdomen. He has now fully recovered, he says, and has joined Rajoub's Preventive Security Force.

"No, we have not received any orders to resist the Israelis," he explains, "but a lot of our people are getting very angry at what is happening in Ramallah, with our leaders. If something were to happen to President Arafat or Marwan, we would all take up arms."

Ferry Biedermann

Ferry Biedermann is a journalist based in Beirut.

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