Palestinians stone Israel's image

After a week of clashes in which 67 were killed - mostly Palestinians - world sympathy tilts to Palestinian cause.

In terms of sticks and stones, the Israelis got through the week relatively unscathed. But the Palestinians are winning the war of words and images.

On the ground, Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's supporters have been no match for the Israeli military. A week of rioting, sometimes escalating into warlike clashes, has left at least 55 Palestinians dead, along with nine Arabs who are Israeli citizens. Only two members of Israel's security forces have died along with one Jewish Israeli civilian.

But in the larger arena of the Middle East peace process, Mr. Arafat has regained lost ground by altering international perceptions.

Just two weeks ago, the Palestinian leader was hearing from old friends in other countries that he had better play ball with an Israeli government ready to make peace. Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak was boasting about Israel's new and improved international standing.

Now the Palestinians have reclaimed their role as the reapers of international sympathy and support. "From the media stand-point," says Israeli political analyst Joseph Alpher, "we've lost this round."

The best example of Mr. Arafat's restored leverage is his unrelenting insistence on an international investigation into the week of bloodshed, despite Mr. Barak's equally adamant refusal.

Even so, the situation in the Palestinian territories was calmer yesterday, as a cease-fire appeared to take hold. But it was unclear what the weekend would bring.

After reaching initial agreement in Paris, media reports say, Arafat refused to sign a prepared document, causing his Israeli counterpart to go home in frustration. Barak adviser Danny Yatom yesterday blamed French President Jacques Chirac, who is now openly supporting Arafat, for the failure to seal an agreement.

Barak did not attend a planned summit with Dr. Albright, Arafat, and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak yesterday.

Barak reportedly agreed to have the US review the results of separate Israeli and Palestinian internal inquiries into the week of violence, but that was apparently not the sort of international investigation Arafat had in mind.

The Palestinian leader has little to lose by sticking to his demand, and potentially a lot to gain. Stung by Israeli accusations that his Palestinian Authority is masterminding the violence, Arafat "wants to document internationally that [the cause is] not the PA, it's the Israelis," says Abdul Jawad Saleh, a member of the Palestinian Legislative Council.

Arafat also wants to draw in other countries as much as possible, perhaps because of his frustrations with US mediation in the peace process. Mahdi Abdul-Hadi, head of a Jerusalem research institute, says Palestinians have become increasingly mistrustful of the "American-Israeli team."

"A third possibility," says a Palestinian political scientist who declined to be quoted by name, "is that Arafat doesn't want to reach an agreement with Barak right now." By insisting on something that the Israeli leader cannot accept, Arafat can "put the blame" on Barak for the lack of a negotiated truce and "still keep the situation hot on the ground," this scholar says.

The Israeli leader's refusal to countenance Arafat's request, analysts say, is due to concerns that an inquiry might lead to an international presence in Jerusalem or somehow result in restraints on Israel's security forces. Partly because of the effectiveness of Palestinian advocacy, Israel has rarely fared well in international forums.

For 16 years, until it was revoked in 1991, the UN had a resolution on the books that equated Zionism - Israel's founding ideology - with racism.

No matter what his real goals are, the Palestinian leader is evidently seeking full advantage from his restored international clout. That standing was weakened by the failure of the Camp David peace talks in July, because President Clinton and Israeli officials later described Arafat as the intransigent party.

Touring the world afterward, friends and allies discouraged him from unilaterally declaring a Palestinian state and told him to keep talking to Barak.

But the violence of the past week, which has mainly pitted Palestinian stone-throwers against heavily armed Israeli soldiers, has reinforced the idea that the Palestinians are the weak victims of Israeli power. Gripping images of a Palestinian child dying under sustained Israeli fire have bolstered this notion.

"It's one of those classic instances," says Mr. Alpher, the Israeli analyst, "where you can see how a picture affects the international division of sympathy."

In Israeli eyes, accusations from around the world that their forces have used excessive force are galling, predictable, and not a matter that should be subject to international scrutiny.

For one thing, notes Mark Heller of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies in Tel Aviv, "most of what's happening has been Palestinian attacks on prepared Israeli positions." In such situations, attackers typically suffer more casualties than defenders.

Mr. Heller concedes that Israeli troops have adopted a "graduated escalation" in their choice of weapons, making use of helicopter gunships, tanks, and missiles in confronting Palestinian protesters. "Palestinians were not allowed to determine unilaterally the rules of engagement to their advantage."

Israel seemed uncomfortable with its superior firepower during the Palestinian uprising, or intifadah, of the late 1980s and early 1990s. Even though it plays badly on the international stage, Israeli forces seem now to have few compunctions about overpowering their adversaries quickly and lethally.

Heller and Alpher point to the last sustained outbreak of hostilities - riots in 1996 sparked by Israeli excavations in Jerusalem's Old City - in arguing that Israeli forces are getting better at what they do. In that conflict, 14 Israeli soldiers and 56 Palestinians were killed; this time roughly the same number of Palestinians have died, but the number of Israeli casualties is far lower.

"It's as if we have to apologize for not having enough people killed," Alpher says.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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