Yasser Arafat’s diminishing standing and credibility among Palestinians was highlighted on May 13, when he was forced to cancel a visit to the devastated Jenin refugee camp because of fears for his life. Some Arafat aides said that they were worried about heckling, others that there were timing difficulties because previous engagements had over-run, but the reality was that, a few hours before his scheduled visit, the makeshift platform amidst the ruins of the camp from which he was due to speak was torched by parties unknown.
The cancellation of the visit was a major setback for Arafat, because it had been eagerly awaited by the international media as an opportunity for Arafat to be seen, photographed and filmed in the middle of the destruction wrought by Israel’s military machine last month, while he was holed up in his besieged headquarters in Ramallah.
The cancellation of the Jenin camp visit overshadowed a tour in which Arafat travelled from Ramallah by a Jordanian military helicopter – his own have been destroyed by the Israelis – to Bethlehem, Nablus and Jenin town. In Bethlehem, he visited the Church of the Nativity, just three days after Israel lifted a siege of it following an agreement by which 13 mujahideen were exiled to Cyprus. This agreement, and the earlier one which secured his own release, by which six Palestinians accused of the assassination of the Israeli tourist minister have been handed over to US and British troops for imprisonment, have both caused widespread anger among Palestinians.
In Bethlehem, Nablus and Jenin, he also visited sites where Israeli troops have caused massive damage during their military offensive against the Palestinians. While supporters welcomed him in all three places, however, their welcome was far more muted than had been anticipated.
The evidence of Arafat’s declining popularity and standing is bad news for Arafat, but may be welcome elsewhere. Some Israelis have long since decided to try to get rid of him, in the hope that he can be replaced by a more pliable and cooperative successor. Washington also has decided to target him for criticism, demanding the reform of the Palestinian Authority’s political structures and processes, apparently thinking that more open and accountable government-something Arafat has been reluctant to concede- would be more cooperative. This demand has also been backed by Sharon.
Sharon and his backers in Washington are reported to believe that a different PA, which is less corrupt and more effective in government, would be more pliable and cooperative. This argument they present as saying that such a Palestinian regime would be easier to work with. What they mean, of course, is that it would be easier to control.
The Israeli media has reported that Sharon’s recent talks with Bush were dominated by this issue, and that he came back from Washington with two major agreements. The first was that the PA in its present form should be dismantled, to be replaced with a more democratic order, and the second is that all negotiations with the Palestinians should be put off until this process is completed.
This is the thinnest possible cover for suspending the peace process until Israel’s aims in Palestinian areas are achieved. Although some continue to talk of the ethnic cleansing of all Palestinians and their transfer to Jordan – a process now being widely touted in Washington – most Israelis and Americans probably realize that this is not realistic. An alternative would be to place the Palestinians under the rule of a puppet regime, as was attempted by the Oslo process.
This approach failed because of Israel’s determination to maintain absolute control and to continue to expand its settlements, in the hope of pushing the Palestinians out. Now it is apparently being tried again.
It is, however, no likelier to succeed this time round than the last. The Palestinians are unhappy with the rule of Arafat and his cronies, and are also interested in political reform and better government, but they know that any regime that the Israelis and the West approve of will not be working for their interests. The parties that are receiving their support – Hamas and Islamic Jihad – are the ones that are determined to resist zionist plans by any means necessary, and are willing to fight to do so.
Mr. Iqbal Siddiqui is Editor of Crescent International and Research Fellow at the Institute of Islamic Contemporary Thought.