4 December 2001
Foes to the end?Adel Darwish reports on the latest show-down between the Middle East’s two old
warhorses, Yasser Arafat and Ariel Sharon, and — in the light of the personal
enmity that exists between them — ponders the prospect for peace.
It was like a scene from the sequel to the 1982 block-buster The Siege
of Beirut, starring Ariel Sharon and Yasser Arafat: the Palestinian leader
with his back to the wall, ducking shells as Israeli tanks advanced on
his headquarters, already deliberately targeted and damaged by rocket-firing
Apache helicopters and F16 fighters on the orders of his old adversary,
Sharon. The same actors, the same human emotions, only the location and
the roles are slightly changed in The Siege II.
As the Israeli army was moving in, re-occupying areas legally under PA control, which it has vacated a few days earlier under American pressure, Israeli air force had destroyed most of Mr Arafat's symbolic presidential status: the runway at Gaza ' International' airport - constructed and financed by the by west under Oslo agreement-, his two helicopters, in Gaza and Ramallah, leaving him stranded reliving the nightmare of Beirut siege in and Tripoli siege by pro-Syrian forces in 1983.
It might have looked almost like ' Children squabbling in a dangerous game' as some British press editorials commented on Arik destroying Yasser's toys; but the events of two days earlier, the weekend that started December 2001, had totally reversed the diplomatic gains which Palestinians, and Arab diplomacy on their behalf, managed to score the previous three months.
In what Israelis call their ' 11th September'; three suicide bombers and car bomb by Palestinian Islamists - Hamas and Islamic Jihad - that went off in the heart of Jerusalem and on a bus in Hifa, 26 Israelis were killed and scores wounded, mainly teenagers out on a Saturday night. It was the darkest hour for the Middle East peace process since the start of Intifada 14 months earlier.
Not only have the bombings and Israel's
retaliation strengthened the hands of those who reject attempts to negotiate
peace. They have also prompted a marked change of attitude in the US administration.
The Israelis invited Michael Bloomberg, the incoming New York mayor and his predecessor, Rudolph Giuliani to visit Jerusalem on 7th December. An unmistakable symbol to highlight the view that the targets of the World Trade Center attacks and those of Palestinian terrorism are fighting in the same trench.
Mr Sharon called the Palestinian Authority ' an
entity supporting and harbouring terrorism.'
Immediately there has been a pro-Israeli
shift in the Bush administration's rhetoric. President Bush's on 4th December
ordered a freeze on assets of Islamic charities alleged to be financing
Hamas. It was welcomed by those who had previously accused
the White House of operating a policy of double standards on terrorism.
They said Mr Sharon would have made the best of
his meeting with Mr Bush in Washington- where he happened to be there when
the outrage happened. President Bush's statement - echoed on the
same day by British Prime Minister Tony Blair - gave green light
to Mr Sharon to attack Mr Arafat's PA. '' Israel,'' said the President,
'' has a right to defend itself.''
In a reply to a reporter's question whether Arafat's rounding up of over 120 of Hamas supporters - as Israel demanded after that attack-, was enough to meet President Bush's call to the Palestinian leader to ' Bring those responsible to justice'; he said: ' let us hope the prison this time cells have bars on the back window and not just on the front.'
Immediately after the attack, Mr Arafat's
administration condemned the bombings and launched a round-up of
suspects - but there seemed little support on the Palestinian street for
a crack down on militants, whom many see as heroes of the Intifada. In
Gaza, hundreds defied a Palestinian Authority ban to stage a rally to denounce
Mr Arafat's efforts seemed too little too late. Israel's veteran diplomat Aba Eban once said,-- and I lost count of how many times I inserted it in my articles during three decades of writing on the Middle East--, that Mr Arafat ' never misses and opportunity to miss an opportunity.'
Having missed the chance to strike a deal- during the dying days of President Clinton administration- with Ehud Barak who slaughtered several scared cows of Israeli politics- by putting Jerusalem on the table, negotiation of dismantling settlements and return of refugees - 11th September events presented Mr Arafat with another golden opportunity.
Since the terror attacks on America on September 11, Mr Sharon and other Israeli officials have likened the PA to the Taliban, acting as protector and sponsor of the bombers of Hamas and Islamic Jihad. But until last month's suicide bombings , Mr Sharon's aides had enjoyed only limited success in persuading the US that Israel's terrorist enemies were on a par with Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda. Washington instead urged both sides to reduce the tension in the Middle East, in order not to divert attention from Mr Bush's war on terrorism in Afghanistan.
Mr Sharon was urged to withdraw from territory
occupied after the murder of Rehavam Zeevi, the Israeli tourism minister,
in October. The Americans also condemned Israel's - ' Targeted
killing' policy while pressing Mr Arafat to bring Palestinian militants
under control. Even some Palestinians conceded that the Bush administration
strategy was more even-handed than they were accustomed to. The President
mentioned the word ' Palestine' several times and talked publicly about
' a viable Palestinian state' three times, one of them was a pledge during
his speech to the UN General Assembly.
Israeli diplomats and the Jewish lobby started
a frantic diplomatic efforts to change US attitude, and had little success
as President Bush didn't want any diversion from his goal of fighting terrorism
in Afghanistan or losing Arab and Islamic support for his action.
The campaign got off to a bad start when Mr Sharon angered President
Bush by warning him not to appease the Arabs at Israel's expense. "Israel
will not be another Czechoslovakia," he declared on October 4.
In fact Washington put Mr Sharon on notice by appointing a totally neutral, former Marine commander Anthony Zinni as personal envoy with brief that he stays in the area until the two sides agree on all details of a cease fire and stick to a strict time-table to re-start the peace process. Mr Arafat also was put on notice that he must quell the militants and stop playing a game of cat and mouse.
He was told that General Zinni, who was brought up in a tough a neighbourhood of New York where he once worked as foot collectors from gambling shops befor joining the military, do understand the Mafia tactics of letting some thugs lose to destroy your business so he ' boss' can later on round them up in exchange for ' protection money' you pay him.
The Israelis have been complaining to the Americans
and the Europeans that Arafat was not serious about ending Islamists violence
once and for all, and that every time he moved to arrest them, the prison
had a revolving door. They accused him of keeping the Islamists terror
option open in order to use it as a bargaining chip with the Israelis.
On 5 December, his police moved to arrest Hamas's
leader Sheikh Ahmad Yasin - who, ironically, was in an Israeli jail three
years earlier until a foolish attempt by Mossad on the life of Hamas's
man on the streets of Jordan, forced, the then Prime Minister, Bibi
Netanyahu to free him, among others, to calm a furious King Hussein, only
to return to Gaza as a permanent headache for both Arafat and Israel -.
A calls from the mosque near Sheikh Yasin's home in Gaza brought
out over a thousand demonstrators who fought with Mr Arafat's police.
A month earlier when Mr Arafat was in London, Prime Minister Blair, raised the issue of arresting terrors suspects with him. Mr Arafat gave him four names on Israel's wanted list saying they were in Jail. No 10 Downing Street passed the information to the Israelis, who claimed that only one of them was arrested for a short period.
A British security expert, who works for the EU, went to Gaza to inspect the claim. He reported seeing only one of them in prison. An hour later, he, cunningly, returned unescorted to the prison saying he forgot his briefcase in the cell. Before the surprised Palestinian officer could move, the inspector rushed to the cell to find it empty and no sign of the prisoner.
Even though, a British diplomat told MidEast News, that all the Americans wanted is a period of calm to enable General Zinni to start his mission.
The Palestinians say the November 23, Israeli assassination of Mohammed Abu Hanoud, a senior leader of Hamas Israel claims he masterminded attacks on its people, was, the spark that ignited the latest bloody crescendo of the Middle East crisis. The Islamists vowed revenge and delivered its predictable and indiscriminately brutal response by suicide bombings. "Sharon provoked the situation before he went to Washington by assassinating Hanoud," said Bassam Abu Sharif, a former militant who first formulated the shift in Palestinian politics towards a "land-for-peace" compromise in the late 1980s. "He knew very well that killing Hanoud would create retaliation. He wants to destroy any chance of returning to the negotiating table."
But to the Israeli government, already enraged by previous bloody attacks by Hamas, the 1st December suicide bombs became the time-machine that took the Palestinian movement back to the position it was in before Arafat, Abu Sharif and other 'Abus' in the exiled Palestine Liberation Organisation opted for the path of a negotiated settlement.
Some western diplomats agree that the Hanoud assassination
marked the start of the escalation. They note that Mr Sharon rebuffed proposals
from a European delegation early November to arrange to monitor whether
the PA was serious about arresting and holding suspects. "Sharon had no
interest in the prisoner monitoring idea," said a western diplomat. As
a result no neutral outsider has a clear idea of whether Mr Arafat was
actively working to rein in the militants or not.
Another diplomat said the Israeli authorities had in some cases actively obstructed the work of Palestinian security forces, preventing reinforcements reaching a West Bank trouble spot in November . "The Israelis were not very helpful," he said, while acknowledging that Mr Arafat's efforts to round up extremists were at best "half-hearted".
Despite the change of America's public statements, an Arab diplomat - of a very small minority of optimists- points out, General Zinni the US special envoy, was still in the region pursuing the "holy grail" of an Israeli-Palestinian ceasefire. But he has to deal with two sides not just one.
Early this year, the possibility of replacing
President Arafat was studied by Israeli officials, who leaked the
discussion to the press. But the idea was shelved fearing that factional
chaos would ensue in the Palestinian territories. Such danger - of instability
still exists - but so does the temptation for Mr Sharon to remove a one-time
interlocutor who scarcely any Israeli still regards as a partner for peace.
And his replacement Israeli officials have considered dealing direct with local commanders such as Jibril Rajoub, Mr Arafat's preventive security chief in the West Bank or Mohammad Dahaln who heads another security and intelligence organ. Those people have been co-operating with Israeli officials on specific security issues; yet there is little indication that they would be prepared to take on the leadership at a time when the Palestinian public - and elements of the mainstream Palestinian parties - are becoming increasingly radicalised.
Mr Arafat's departure would be a victory
for militant Islamists.
If Arafat was to go, we would have an intransigent Israeli government, confronting a leaderless and radicalised Palestinian population, with Islamic militants in the ascendancy, they say. Even in a year's time, it would be led by the likes of Bibi Netanyahu - who currently enjoys 20% lead over Sharon, making any hope of reviving the peace process would be even further away than they are now.
Right wing Israeli commentators argue that destroying the Palestinian Authority was no longer the issue. What they see important was to give a positive signal to the next Palestinian generation, hand in hand with the punitive measures that had to be taken against Hamas and Islamic Jihad. If any future leadership was to be allowed to remain in power, it must rein the Islamists and militants.
Israel's largest paper Ydiot Ahronot carried a survey that indicated that 37 per cent of Israelis wanted the government to topple Mr Arafat while 32 per cent said Israel must begin accelerated peace talks without waiting for a ceasefire.
Even if, by some miracle, the Palestinians were to peacefully follow the constitution rules to the letter in the event of Arafat's demise, Ahamd Quraei - Abu Alla- would replace Arafat within 60 days. That has to be followed by election, few would doubt, that would give militant Islamists would a landslide victory. Israel, then, would have to live with a democratically elected radical leadership of an Islamic entity dedicated to the destruction of the Jewish state.
At least Mr Arafat and his PA gave up such illusion
when signed the Oslo accord eight years ago.
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