Palestinian unrest about Arafat puts Lebanon on alert
The Israeli Air Force scrambled several jets last week, fearing possible attacks from Palestinians upset by Yasser Arafat's condition.
NAQOURA, SOUTH LEBANON
When Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat was reported to have slipped into a coma last week, the Israeli Air Force wasted no time scrambling several jets across the border into south Lebanon.Skip to next paragraph
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The overflights, which consisted of 11 aircraft and three reconnaissance drones, illustrate Israel's unease at the prospect of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon launching revenge attacks across the border should the ailing Palestinian leader die.
Those fears are shared on the Lebanese side of the border, with the government in Beirut as well as the Hizbullah organization wary of an Israeli backlash to Palestinian attacks.
The bottom line, say observers, is that Mr. Arafat's death could lead to instability in the camps in Lebanon as well as the Palestinian territories, creating an atmosphere for cross- border violence.
"Both sides are very concerned about what the Palestinians might do in the event of Arafat's death," says a senior security source in south Lebanon.
Indeed, at the end of October, suspected Palestinian militants fired a single Katyusha rocket into northern Israel. Security officials suspect that the attack was in response to the news that Arafat was dying and required treatment in France.
The Israeli Cabinet claimed on Sunday that four Katyusha rockets have been fired into Israel so far this year, and blamed Palestinian militants.
The Lebanese government keeps a tight leash on the estimated 350,000 Palestinians living in some 12 camps scattered throughout the country. But the poverty and squalid living conditions in these camps breed hopelessness and despair, making the Palestinians a potential source of instability.
For 40 years, Arafat has symbolized Palestinian statehood and he is revered by most of these refugees for his unstinting demand that they be allowed to return to their former homes.
Still, the Palestinian leadership in Lebanon is ruling out the prospect of revenge attacks along the border.
"It is not part of our political program to carry out operations whether, God forbid, President Arafat stays sick, or if he gets better," says Sultan Abul-Aynayn, the head of Arafat's Fatah faction in Lebanon.
Fatah is the most powerful Palestinian faction in the volatile camps in southern Lebanon, using funds controlled by Arafat to buy support. If the supply of funds dries up in the event of his death, Fatah may find its dominance challenged by more radical factions - a recipe for intra-Palestinian violence that could affect stability along the border.
Generally, however, Israel's principal concern from Lebanon is Hizbullah rather than Palestinian militants.
Although there are some 1,000 Lebanese troops deployed in the southern border district, Hizbullah fighters maintain control of the frontier itself, monitoring Israeli movements from a series of observation posts.
Hizbullah periodically launches attacks against Israeli troops occupying the Shebaa Farms, a strip of mountainside running along Lebanon's southeast border with the Golan Heights. But Hizbullah's anti-Israel actions are kept within a certain limit. Their intention is to needle the Israelis but not to provoke a heavy military response against Lebanon that could cause a backlash against Hizbullah's domestic popularity.