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Arafat's familiar balancing act gets trickier

Torn between Palestinian unity and US pressure to nail terrorists, Arafat largely plays to the home crowd.

By Cameron W. BarrStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / November 8, 2001


In the early aftermath of Sept. 11, Palestinians veered between hope and dread. The fear was that Israel would be given free reign against them in a US-led "war on terrorism." The hope was that the United States, in order to build a global antiterror coalition, finally had reason to pressure the Israelis into a peace agreement the Palestinians could accept.

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Nearly two months after the terrorist attacks, neither scenario has come to pass. Instead Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat finds himself in a familiar place: torn between trying to maintain the unity of his people and trying to meet the expectations of the West.

At least for the moment, Mr. Arafat is mainly playing lip service to those expectations, resisting demands from US and Israeli officials that he dismantle Palestinian organizations capable of terrorism. That is because meeting those demands, Palestinian political analysts say, might well bring civil war.

Nonetheless, the US is turning up the heat on the Palestinians. A senior US diplomat told a Washington conference last week that the Palestinian campaign of resistance against Israeli occupation had become a "process of calculated terror and escalation." The Bush administration also named two militant Palestinian groups to the list of organizations it will target in coming months.

Daniel Kurtzer, the US ambassador to Israel, this week told reporters that the Palestinian leader "needs to make decisions with respect to where he stands on questions related to terrorism.... [W]ords are not enough to prove that one is against terrorism. It requires actions."

"We need to see a fight against terror," complains a senior Israeli intelligence official, speaking on condition of anonymity, "and Arafat has no intention to do that."

Arafat is also facing increasing pressure from militant Palestinians. In the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks, some Palestinian militants largely refrained from engaging in violence against Israelis that would be condemned as terrorism. In particular, the Islamic Resistance Movement, or Hamas, appears not to have targeted Israelis within Israel proper - as opposed to settlers and soldiers in the West Bank or Gaza Strip - since early September.

"I won't say there is no reduction" in such attacks, says the Israeli intelligence official, "but there has been no cessation."

Indeed, the restraint is now fading. On Oct. 28, two gunmen from the Islamic Jihad group killed four Israeli women in the coastal city of Hadera, firing their weapons until they themselves were killed.

A week later a lone gunman from the same group attacked a bus in a Jerusalem suburb, killing two teenagers before being shot dead. The bus was in an area seized by Israel in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war and later annexed, but it remains occupied land in Palestinian eyes.

Arafat's dilemma is not simply a matter of whether to crack down on terrorism.

Two schools of thought have emerged over how Palestinians should deal with post-Sept. 11 realities, says Bir Zeit University political scientist Hisham Ahmed.