Arafat’s choices

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Although the Palestinian Authority (PA)’s recent series of calm-restoring measures were both well- meant and largely successful, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has not relented in his bullying tactics against the Palestinian leadership and people. The most provocative act on Sharon’s part took the form of barring Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat from attending the traditional midnight Christmas mass in Bethlehem, the birthplace of Jesus.

Although himself a Muslim, Arafat has always made a point of attending high-profile Christian religious celebrations to highlight Christian-Muslim unity in the face of Israeli oppression. But Sharon — ignoring objections from within his coalition government and acting in spite of international criticism — insisted that Arafat be prevented, by force if necessary, from travelling the 20 kilometres to Bethlehem.

Sharon’s way of justifying the draconian measure was to invoke the old mantra of “fighting terror.” On 24 December, the Israeli prime minister ordered his occupation army to send reinforcements to checkpoints and roadblocks ringing Ramallah. Nonetheless, the measure seemed to be aimed more at humiliating the Palestinian leader and less at forcing Arafat to “fight terror.”

Indeed, the PA has made remarkable successes of late in stemming violence and restoring calm. The achievement of calm has been recognised as such by Israeli officials and the Hebrew press, but PA efforts have cost at least seven Palestinian lives in the Gaza Strip. Eventually the Palestinian leadership succeeded in coercing Hamas, the main Islamic resistance group, into suspending its bombings and mortar attacks against targets inside Israel.

But Sharon seems to have recognised none of these efforts, and has instead responded with ever more provocation. Last week, the Israeli minister for Internal Security Uzi Landau ordered his men to arrest and question Sari Nusseiba, the PLO’s man in East Jerusalem, for having planned a reception for foreign diplomats and local dignitaries in an East Jerusalem hotel to mark the Eid Al-Fitr holiday.

Landau, whose views on the Palestinians are even more hawkish than those of Sharon, defended his measure against Nusseiba by arguing it was necessary for “fighting terror.”

Landau’s reaction to the innocuous reception was matched with similar repressive measures on the streets and intersections of the West Bank where ubiquitous Israeli roadblocks and checkpoints effectively paralysed movement of individuals and cars.

This was most conspicuous in Bethlehem, upon which the eyes of the world were focused. According to eyewitnesses, Israeli occupation soldiers manning roadblocks outside Bethlehem have been harassing and humiliating Christians, including some clergymen, on their way to Bethlehem.

“It seems that humiliation is the Israeli army’s way of asserting authority,” a Catholic clergyman commented to Al-Ahram Weekly. The Italian clergyman also asked, with a deep sigh, “What kind of education did those soldiers receive while in school?”

Meanwhile, the main Christian Churches in Palestine published a statement on 24 December denouncing the Israeli decision to bar Arafat from attending Christmas celebrations in Bethlehem.

The statement, published in the leading Arabic newspapers, accused the Israeli government of “seeking to escalate organised state terror against the Palestinian people and authorities. This decision amounts to a flagrant assault on religious freedoms and is aimed at corroding the prospects for a just and durable peace in Palestine.”

In Bethlehem itself, it was a sad Christmas spent under siege. “As you see, Bethlehem, Beit Sahur and Beit Jala are closed. They have been reduced to a huge detention camp,” said Azmi Kukali, a taxi cab driver from Beit Sahur. “The Israelis don’t distinguish between Muslims and Christians here, we are all legitimate targets for their blind hatred,” he added.

Sharon’s sustained efforts are aimed at achieving two main goals. First, the Israeli government hopes that by pressing Arafat further against the wall, he will capitulate under pressure and give his consent to the kind of peace deal that would be only be a hapless euphemism for surrender.

Indeed, Sharon has all along sought to manipulate the Palestinian uprising, especially the suicide bombings, to conceal his political convictions vis-a-vis the Palestinian issue. Sharon seems to be aiming at the consolidation of Israeli occupation and apartheid and intimidating the Palestinian people into coming to terms with “reality” or fleeing their homeland under pressure. This undeclared strategy offers him a way of coping with Israel’s growing demographic dilemma.

Second, Sharon appears to be trying to induce an implosion within Palestinian society. If this were to happen, the conflict would be redefined, from Israeli-Palestinian to inter-Palestinian.

The success of this strategy was in evidence last week, when undisciplined Palestinian policemen opened fire on young protesters during a funeral procession at the Jebalya refugee camp. Seven Palestinians aged between 13 and 18 were killed in the bloodiest inter-Palestinian clashes since 1994. In that year, PA policemen shot and killed 13 pro-Hamas supporters outside the Falastin Mosque in Gaza during a riot.

This time, however, PA and Islamist leaders hastened to control the clashes and calm passions, thus denying Sharon further propaganda munitions to use against Palestinians living under occupation.

Needless to say, the bloody events at Jebalya also highlighted the serious dilemma facing Yasser Arafat.

Arafat’s policemen, who were instructed to close Hamas offices and charities throughout the West Bank and Gaza Strip, had to wear masks to conceal their faces to avoid identification and embarrassment. The policemen and their superiors were apparently acutely aware of how unpopular the American-demanded measures against Hamas were among Palestinians.

The policemen were not willing to risk being labelled as the henchmen of Israel and the United States by an increasingly disillusioned public. In the mindset of an occupied people, charges of treason and collaboration with the enemy are the worst accusation possible.

Arafat must be aware of this dilemma, something indicated by his refusal to act as decisively against Hamas as demanded by the United States and insisted upon by Sharon. By definition, a dilemma is having to choose between two unattractive choices. In Arafat’s case, it is either explosion or implosion. He desperately needs to find a third choice. The next few days and weeks will tell if he succeeds or not.

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