Facing heat, Arafat demands militants end attacks

Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat is using a newly restored level of popularity to beat back demands that he appoint a prime minister and reform his administration.

But he seems to be heeding calls – from within the Fateh political movement he founded as well as from the outside world – that Palestinians cease their attacks on Israeli civilians.

"The word has gone out," says a senior Western diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity, "that now is a very bad time for attacks on Israelis."

In late September, after Israeli forces had once again laid siege to his compound here, Mr. Arafat instructed the two leading Palestinian militant groups, the Islamic Resistance Movement and Islamic Jihad, to abstain from violence. "Arafat sent a clear message to them through [National Security Adviser Mohammed] Dahlan not to do anything," says a senior Palestinian security official, also speaking on condition of anonymity.

This official attributes the starkest of motives to Arafat: "Only when he saw the knife against his throat did he act." The Israeli siege followed a pair of suicide attacks in mid-September that sparked speculation that Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon would expel or kill the Palestinian leader.

But Arafat's move to curtail attacks on Israeli civilians is more than self-preservation. After two years of uprising, or intifada, against Israel, many Palestinians are tiring of the conflict – a fatigue that has manifested itself in street-level criticism of Arafat's leadership and of the Palestinians' most notorious tactic: suicide bombing.

Notwithstanding a surge of popularity during Israel's most recent siege, Arafat is in deeper political trouble today than he has been in many years. Four months ago, a Palestinian Cabinet minister named Nabil Amr resigned his office, calling on Arafat to reform his administration. Last month, Arafat dissolved the entire Cabinet, promising to name new ministers in an effort to placate Palestinian political frustration. He also announced that elections would be held in January.

On Tuesday night, the central committee of Fateh, the mainstream Palestinian political faction, backed Arafat's stance that the appointment of a prime minister should wait until the establishment of a Palestinian state. Given the slim likelihood of such a thing coming into existence anytime soon, the wait could be a long one.

In an interview Wednesday in his Ramallah home, Mr. Amr said the push for reform – including the naming of a premier – would continue. He noted that the central committee "took a decision about the timing, not about the idea."

But if the political push has been delayed, a reconsideration of the use of violence seems to be gathering momentum. Regarding what Palestinians call their "armed struggle," Amr says "there is a real change, a deep change." While Palestinians will not stop their "resistance" against occupation and settlements, he says, "all of Fateh is against suicide bombing."

He adds, however, that the weakening of Palestinian institutions – due in large part to Israel's enduring reoccupation of West Bank towns and cities – has made it impossible to make the changes felt.

Kamel Hmeid, the Fateh general secretary in Bethlehem, emphasizes that the intifada will proceed through "civilian actions," including demonstrations, flag-raising, strikes, and stone-throwing "from time to time."

This language stands in sharp contrast to the by-any-means-necessary rhetoric of much of the past two years. Coming from Mr. Hmeid, a man considered responsible for orchestrating militant actions against Israel in the Bethlehem area, stressing a nonviolent intifada is all the more remarkable.

On the subject of his role, Hmeid is modest. "No one person is responsible," he says with a smile.

The rethink is not limited to words. Palestinian police in Bethlehem are holding two men arrested for shooting at the Jerusalem suburb of Gilo, and another man in connection with a planned suicide bombing – the most substantive of such arrests, by some accounts, since the beginning of the intifada.

The senior Palestinian security official says police in Bethlehem now have "a political decision" to arrest those caught engaging in violence against Israel. That decision, he says, is Arafat's.

"On the ground, we have not achieved anything by choosing this path," the official adds, referring to the use of violence against Israeli civilians. "On the contrary, we have enlisted the whole world against us." Many Palestinians say that the post-Sept. 11 condemnation of terrorism has encouraged them to reconsider their tactics.

Arafat's edict and other signs of a Palestinian shift constitute "strands of hope," observes the Western diplomat, but such strands are usually pretty thin in the Middle East, with good reason.

On July 22, the Israeli air force used a one-ton bomb to assassinate a senior member of the Islamic Resistance Movement in the Gaza Strip, killing 13 Palestinian civilians. That attack scuttled a hard-fought diplomatic effort to negotiate an agreement among all Palestinian factions to renounce attacks on Israeli civilians within Israel proper, and led to more violence. One of the suicide attacks in mid-September, which killed five Israelis, was claimed by Hamas as retaliation for the July 22 strike.

Mohammed Hourani, who, like Amr, is a member of both the Palestinian parliament and Fateh, speaks of the need for Palestinians to maintain their balance, and "not lose our moral and ethical basis" by engaging in attacks on civilians. He says his people may have recovered that balance now. But he adds: "I don't know if we can keep it after two or three months, if Sharon keeps killing and killing."

It is, of course, unclear how long Hamas and Islamic Jihad can be cajoled or even forced into restraint. Their agenda – which includes the eradication of Israel – is not the same as Arafat's. Even so, the Palestinian security official says they will obey. "I don't think they would dare [not to], unless Arafat changes his opinion."

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