All sides close in on Arafat
Even his core faction says it will not arrest Hamas militants.
BETHLEHEM, WEST BANK AND GAZA CITY, GAZA STRIP — Yasser Arafat is boxed into a corner.
Simultaneously blamed for sponsoring terrorism and charged with stopping it, Mr. Arafat is caught between a US-endorsed Israeli ultimatum and the demands of his own people.
Two days after initiating a crackdown on Palestinian militants, the Palestinian Authority president is facing increasing opposition from members of his own Fatah faction - the core of his political support. At the same time, Israeli forces have broadened their attacks on Palestinian targets, including strikes on Arafat's compounds in Gaza City and Ramallah. Whether because of its eroding legitimacy or Israeli military pressure, the future of Arafat's Palestinian Authority is in doubt.
Yesterday, Israeli warplanes staged a frightening display over PA buildings in Gaza City, circling overhead and swooping down in mock attacks. Bureaucrats in the PA Finance Ministry fled their building, their neckties fluttering in the wind.
But not all the Israeli strikes were virtual. Palestinian officials said two people were killed in attacks in Gaza and the West Bank, and more than 120 were wounded.
The Israeli strategy is complicating the process of arresting militants - something that many Palestinians feel amounts to doing Israel's bidding. "Some of the people in the PA intend to damage Hamas, while others are just trying to make a display for the Israelis," says Ahed Abu al-Atta, student council chairman at Gaza's Islamic University.
On Monday evening the Israeli Cabinet declared the PA "an entity that supports terrorism" following a televised address by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. He said that a "war of terror" had been forced upon Israel, one whose aim was to "expel us from here."
Arafat, Mr. Sharon said, had adopted "a strategy of terrorism, in choosing to try and win political accomplishments through murder and in choosing to allow the ruthless killing of innocent civilians."
The Cabinet later authorized Israel's security forces to expand their measures against "Palestinian terrorism," but offered the Palestinian leader a way out of a wider conflict. "This determination is subject to change ... if the Palestinian Authority fulfills its commitments, according to [prior] agreements, to prevent and foil terrorism, punish terrorism, and dismantle the terrorist infrastructure."
The PA's state of emergency, announced Sunday, appears intended to meet this standard, but there seems little likelihood that the Palestinian leadership can fulfill Israeli expectations.
Arafat is encountering opposition from within the very heart of Palestinian ranks: The Fatah movement he founded, which has been the backbone of the PA's legitimacy.
"Without Fatah," says Hisham Ahmed, a political scientist at Bir Zeit University, "the PA cannot survive."
On Sunday night, in a refugee camp near the West Bank town of Bethlehem, some local Fatah leaders made clear they would not go along with Arafat's latest strategy.
Around 11 p.m., three or four jeeps loaded with members of the PA's security forces rolled into Duheisheh, a tightly packed warren of cement buildings. Throughout the West Bank and Gaza, similar groups of security officers were carrying out arrests.
At Duheisheh, the security officers intended to arrest local members of the Palestinian Islamic groups. But then they encountered the local leadership of Fatah.
A senior Bethlehem Fatah leader, Abu Khalil Laham, along with hundreds of Duheisheh residents, some of them armed, told the PA officers to get out. "Today we are witnessing the ... phenomenon of political arrests," Mr. Laham later told the crowd in an impromptu midnight rally. "And we in Fatah vehemently refuse these acts. We will not allow this to happen. If [the PA security forces] attempt to come back, there will be serious problems."
"The position of Fatah," Laham said in an interview yesterday, "is that the political arrests is something that contradicts our national security interests. We hold the Israelis fully responsible for what is going on."
The key problem is mistrust of the Israelis. "This government has no program to offer us," he asserts, referring to the Sharon administration. "We are not willing to destroy the unity of our people in exchange for nothing."
A likely target of the planned arrests, Sheikh Abdul Majeed Atta, a member of the Hamas movement and a Muslim preacher, felt comfortable enough yesterday to have his hair trimmed at his neighborhood barbershop.
Mr. Atta disparages Arafat's attempts to impose a state of emergency and stifle Hamas and another militant Palestinian group, Islamic Jihad. "The Islamic movement is not like a chicken that you can catch and slaughter," he says.
Although dozens of Hamas members have been imprisoned in recent days, Atta says these detentions will have no impact on the activities of the group's military wing, which claimed responsibility for last weekend's deadly bombs in Jerusalem and Haifa. "The Israelis and the PA are arresting people who have nothing to do with military operations. The members of the military wing are not people who pray in the mosque or march in demonstrations."
The past year, he says, has brought about unprecedented "field unity" between Fatah and other Palestinian groups. Both Atta and Laham say that a coalition of political factions - in effect the governing body of the Palestinian uprising - has rejected the PA's state of emergency and its plans to arrest militants.
As a result, Atta says, "nobody knows who is going to implement this state of emergency."
Even a member of the PA security forces, a man holding the rank of major who refused to be identified by name, says that he would refuse an order to arrest "a freedom fighter." But he also argues that the resistance to the state of emergency benefits the PA.
"If the street, the opposition, and Fatah object to the PA it should ... empower the PA in fighting external pressure," he says, referring to Israeli and US demands that the Palestinians crack down. By the same token, he argues, the Israelis have resisted calls to stop or dismantle settlements by insisting that Israeli public opinion would not tolerate such moves.
Those external pressures mounted yesterday, when US law enforcement authorities raided four US offices of the Texas-based Holy Land Foundation for Relief and Development, calling it a fund-raising front for Hamas.
"The terrorists benefit from the Holy Land Foundation, and we're not going to allow it," President Bush said. He said the money raised by the foundation helped Hamas recruit and train suicide bombers. The raids in California, Texas, Illinois, and New Jersey represent an active broadening of the US-led war on terrorism.
In Gaza, where deprivation has long engendered support for Palestinian extremism, it is clear that sympathy for Hamas is broad and stable.
"Hamas is not the enemy," says Hasan Safi, a Fatah student leader at Al-Azhar University in Gaza. "Hamas is an integral part of the Palestinian people combatting occupation. The Israeli government is the real enemy of the Palestinian people." Arrests, he says, are "intended to protect some of the personalities from Israeli assassination."
Jamila Saydam, a Fatah member of the Palestinian Legislative Council, says that Israel, not Hamas, is responsible for the bombing attack Sunday in Haifa that killed 15 people. "Israel is killing our sons every day. Continuing this killing pushes the Palestinian extremists to undertake massacres, or what is called massacres, but are not really massacres. He who carries out massacres, receives them back."
Hamas's spiritual leader, Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, says the PA's arrests "are not acceptable to the Palestinian people." But he stresses that Hamas would not confront the PA "while it is being struck by the Israeli enemy."
"The PA does not want to destroy Hamas, and Hamas does not want to destroy the PA," he says. "We are in the same trench. The enemy wants to destroy us all."