Israel runs risks with assault on its ‘deputy sheriff’

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The Israeli onslaught against Yasser Arafat, his people and his security forces over the past months and most especially of the past six days, with the accompanying isolation and attempted humiliation of the Palestinian leader, is likely to achieve for Israel the very reverse of what it appears to want: security and peace inside the occupied territories and effective measures by Mr Arafat to end the suicide bombings.

Ariel Sharon, the Israeli prime minister, is clearly intent on deactivating, detaining or deporting Mr Arafat to render impotent the Palestinian Authority – but it is a desperate solution for a man he sees as his ancient and persistent foe and likely promulgator of the independent Palestinian state that he cannot abide.

If he is sent into exile, Mr Arafat can fairly pronounce: Apr�s moi, le d�luge. For it may seem impossible to credit – when Israeli and Western leaders are blaming the Palestinian leader for failing to restrain suicide bombers – but a short time ago Mr Arafat was under attack from the Left, at home and abroad.

He was under fire from Islamic militants for his reliance on the United States for a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian crisis. Indeed, he was assailed for his perceived willingness to act as Israel’s “deputy sheriff” in the Occupied Territories.

Edward Said, the Palestinian-American academic and virulent critic of Mr Arafat, made this point earlier this year, claiming that “a silent majority of Palestinians is neither for the [Palestinian] Authority’s misplaced trust in Oslo … nor for Hamas’s violence”.

For three weeks over Christmas, Mr Arafat harried the Islamic organisations – at that time the groups prominent in suicide bombings – and by January had arrested 60 members of the radical Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) , which had assassinated a right-wing Israeli cabinet minister.

However, during the Palestinian leader’s three-week Christmas ceasefire, one Israeli was killed while 21 Palestinians, many of them civilians, died in 16 incursions by the Israeli army into the autonomous areas of the Palestinian Authority.

In fact, Mr Arafat has since the mid-1990s a full record of arresting and trying to restrain militants and opponents of the Oslo peace process he so believed in. His crackdown o Palestinian militants horrified civil rights campaigners and many of his own people, who saw him as a lackey, a P�tain, almost, of Israel and the United States.

Now the Palestinian public has rallied to Mr Arafat as at no time since the present uprising started more than 18 months ago.

The popular support among Palestinians for armed resistance, for shooting Israeli soldiers and settlers and blowing up Israelis whoever they are and wherever they can be found, is at its zenith.

If Mr Arafat’s “isolation” is transmuted into capture and/or deportation – Egypt is seen as a likely destination – Israel will have lost the one effective interlocutor it has. No successor to Mr Arafat exists, either in his political or his security structure. The very national force he has set up to impose internal discipline is being besieged and depleted.

Exiled, he would be a potential “martyr”, a voice in the wilderness, perhaps, but whose appeal and symbolism as leader would be enhanced within the occupied territories and even in a sympathetic international community beyond.

His forced exile would be an inflammatory exercise, reaffirming to the Palestinians that the one man they trusted, if warily, to lead them to justice has been cast out and down by Israel and its allies.

In fact, Ariel Sharon, has tried this before. As defence minister 20 years ago, he tried to hammer Mr Arafat into the ground, expelling his Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) from its Lebanese base, where it was firing up nationalist feelings in the West Bank and Gaza.

Mr Arafat was exiled to Tunisia, but all Israeli attempts to create “quisling” leaderships in the West Bank’s villages, and all the efforts by Jordan and the United States to talk the Palestinians in the occupied territories into a compromise of a union between them, Jordan and Israel, produced only the intifada of 1987-1991 – as it turned out, a potent forewarning of the present resistance struggle.

From Tunis, Mr Arafat and his lieutenants seized the intifada and started the journey back to Palestine.

This Israeli government – perhaps all Israeli governments – seem unable to draw the obvious conclusion – an increasingly dynamic, pervasive and now blood-drenched one – that the majority of Palestinians are simply seeking an end to military occupation and the promise of self-determination in a viable, independent state.

This must be the sine qua non of any ceasefire. Mr Arafat’s exile or severe containment will not end that quest, only reconfirm and intensify it. Without him, leaderships will arise in fractured communities which will continue to take the war against Israelis into Israel.

While Mr Sharon’s aim may be to have the Palestinian factions turn against each other, he will have opened a Pandora’s box of two million people on the West Bank and a million in Gaza who no longer have anything to lose and who seem to be nonchalant in the face of Israel’s firepower.

Extended Israeli forces would be even more exposed to guerrilla warfare; most Jewish settlements would be isolated and vulnerable as never before.

Mr Sharon cannot kill all Palestinians and he cannot deport them or scare them over Arab borders, as happened to much smaller and less-organised Palestinian populations in 1948 and 1967.

With Mr Arafat gone, no Palestinian would dare try to inherit his mantle, with or without Israeli connivance – he would be a dead man. Even an Arafat “nominee” would be unable to control his people’s anger and their determination to attain an end to occupation and a free state.

Mr Arafat, in any case, is unlikely to name such a person. Israel assassinated Mr Arafat’s only likely successor, Abu Jihad, in Tunis, in 1988. Radical Palestinians did for another candidate, Abu Iyyad, also in Tunis, in 1991.

Now the only man to deal with is the man they say has orchestrated the intifada, whereas the evidence is to the contrary – the force of Palestinian frustration and discontent has swept Mr Arafat along: despite his efforts at control, he has had to side with his people and lead from the front.

Ironically, if anyone is cornered by this tragic confluence of continued occupation and diplomatic paralysis, it is likely to be Ariel Sharon, not Yasser Arafat, wherever the Palestinian leader ends up.

Tim Llewellyn is a former BBC Middle East correspondent.

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