The Palestinian Authority has been resisting unrelenting Israeli and American pressure to “rein in” Hamas and Islamic Jihad activists involved in national resistance against the Israeli occupation. On 12 August, US President George Bush urged Arafat to “make more efforts to control the terrorists.” The PA reportedly informed the Bush administration that any crack-down on the Islamists “now” would amount to political suicide for the PA and its leader Yasser Arafat.
A high-ranking PA official from the Hebron area, who requested anonymity, intimated that the PA’s refusal to intern a significant number of Islamists, at Israel’s behest, had to do with the disastrous political ramifications such a step would have on the PA leadership.
“If we started rounding people up, then the masses would see us as traitors. They would say: look! The Israeli army is assassinating freedom fighters and Abu Ammar (as Palestinian President Yasser Arafat is known) is putting them in jail. In short, we would look like Antoine Lahd,” said the PA official, referring to the commander of the defunct Southern Lebanese Army. The official went on to say, “They want us to jail them, but who could guarantee that Israeli fighter planes wouldn’t attack the jail or jails where the Islamists were interned, and slaughter them en masse?”
A few months ago, Israeli fighter planes did in fact attack a PA prison in Nablus, in an effort to “liquidate” Hamas guerrilla, Mahmoud Abu Hannoud. Abu Hannoud escaped the bombing, but 13 policemen and civilians died.
As well as leaning on Arafat to repress Islamists, Bush went further, voicing his view that Arafat is increasingly influenced by Islamists.
Bush’s remarks, which he made to the press from his ranch in Texas, reveal a shocking lack of awareness of the immense impact the Intifada has had on the Palestinian political map, and on the Palestinian spirit. The Intifada, and the brutal Israeli response, have united the Palestinian factions, including the bulk of the PA itself, in a broad front against the Israeli occupation.
In any case, the PA’s willingness, not to mention its ability, to crack down on the Islamists, has been heavily undermined in a variety of ways.
Fatah, the erstwhile political and some time security backbone of the PA actually leads the current Intifada, side by side with Islamist fighters. So any crackdown on the Islamists would be meaningless if Fatah were allowed to continue resisting, (or “terrorising,” as the Israelis would have it.) On the other hand, if the PA were also to repress Fatah, it would become so isolated that the move would merely presage its own extinction.
The united nationalist-Islamist front against Israel, which the PA is unable to control, is manifesting itself positively and fruitfully each day, with Hamas and Fatah fighters, along with those from other resistance groups, carrying out coordinated resistance attacks and ambushes on Israeli occupation targets.
For example, Fatah and Islamic fighters combined to resist the Israeli occupation troops which made a serious incursion into Jenin on 14 August. “We no longer speak in factional terms, but in national terms. We are the resistance, which includes elements of all Palestinian political groups,” said Hamdi Jallad, a Fatah spokesman in Jenin, who spoke shortly after Fatah and Hamas youths successfully forced Israeli invaders to withdraw from the city.
Beyond its reliance on Fatah, it is amply clear that the PA itself has been hit hard by the Israeli army during the past few months, with many of its headquarters destroyed and scores of its Force-17 members murdered. The very security agencies that would carry out the arrests have themselves been bombarded and brutally attacked by the Israelis.
Nayef Rajoub, a popular Islamist leader in the West Bank, alluded to this in an interview with Al-Ahram Weekly on 14 August. He pointed out that the worst blunder [Israeli Prime Minister Ariel] Sharon has made was attacking PA headquarters and positions. “That he targeted the PA, and many of its security agencies, and, of course Fatah, has guaranteed that these people will join Hamas and other resistance groups in the fight against the Zionists.”
The effect of this has been psychological as well as logistical. Not only is the security apparatus of the PA weakened, but Israeli assassinations have blunted any desire among Palestinian security personnel to arrest Islamists by indelibly scarring them with the hurt of bereavement.
But perhaps the most important reason why the PA cannot now clamp down on the Islamists, as it did before Al-Aqsa Intifada, is Sharon’s adamant refusal to grant the PA “concessions” that would enable Yasser Arafat to justify jailing Islamist activists before the eyes of the Palestinian public. The PA is concerned that any bowing to Israeli demands and American pressure in this regard would cause the Palestinian people to rise against it.
A trailer for an uprising against the PA took place in Gaza in July, when thousands of angry Palestinians, from Fatah, Hamas and the left, encircled the house of PA security chief Moussa Arafat, reportedly after he instructed his men to arrest Islamist fighters.
The “incident” was eventually controlled but not before Arafat agreed, under street pressure, to release the fighters and undertook not to arrest them again.
The PA is trying to strike a delicate balance between its responsibility to its people and international demands for control of the militants. At times, Arafat does have to bargain with world opinion. Last week, PA police detained a few Islamic activists in Ramallah and Nablus, and Arafat informed the American administration of the arrests as they happened. This, apparently, allowed US Secretary of State Colin Powell to urge the Israelis to exercise “self-restraint”, following the suicide-bomb attack on West Jerusalem on 10 August.
The Islamists understood that the arrests were made under duress, even if they demanded that the PA ignore American pressure because, as Rajoub said, “the Americans back Israel whether oppressed or oppressor.” The Islamists, especially Hamas, can withstand a “few arrests” here and there, and may even be willing to give Arafat the benefit of the doubt: on occasion.
The Islamists reason that any confrontation with Arafat now would undermine the national Palestinian struggle. Hamas, whose popularity has soared to unprecedented levels in the last few months, would incur at least some of the blame. Furthermore, any serious problems between Hamas and the PA would spoil the growing and fruitful relationship between Hamas and Fatah. This relationship, many Islamists believe, is needed for a successful struggle against Israel and as a guarantee against PA repression of the Islamists.