Assessing terror's political costs

With militants harnessed for now, both Israelis and Palestinians are gauging new post-Sept. 11 realities.

Hussein Sheikh, a senior leader of Yasser Arafat's Fatah organization, sits in his expansive living room and relates how he and others persuaded Palestinian militants to put their suicide bombers on hold - at least inside Israel and at least for now.

"We explained to Hamas," Mr. Sheikh says, referring to the Islamic Resistance Movement, whose members have carried out the most deadly attacks on Israeli civilians, "that any weapons we have are political instruments and that we cannot allow a situation where we would be labeled as terrorists and where this conflict is called a clash of civilizations."

It has taken a few months, but a key post-Sept. 11 reality seems to be taking hold on both sides of the Middle East's most intractable conflict: The political costs of terrorism are becoming impossibly high.

Two weeks after Mr. Arafat used this logic to impose a cease-fire, the Palestinian public largely supports his position, meaning that the Palestinian leader has again turned events beyond his control to his advantage. At the same time, his crackdown on Hamas is more gentle than the Israelis and the Americans would like - a possible reflection of Hamas's own recognition of global realities and its ability to make political deals with Arafat.

The Israelis have already capitalized on America's "war on terrorism" by securing broad international acquiescence for military actions against the Palestinians - actions that were formerly criticized as overly harsh or disproportionate.

Now Mr. Arafat is citing the war on terrorism to demand that Palestinians desist from tactics that can be lumped together with the attacks on the US this fall. The message seems to be sinking in. "We don't live in another world," acknowledges Hamas spokesman Hassan Yousef. "We are very much aware of the negative international, and especially American and Israeli, pressure" that Palestinians are facing.

In doing so, the Palestinian leader seems to be stemming the decline of his own popularity and that of his Fatah movement. An opinion poll conducted just before Christmas shows that Arafat's popularity stands at 36 percent, up from 33 percent in July 2001. The independent Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research (PCPSR), the firm that conducted the poll, says it is "possible that the trend of continued decline in Arafat's popularity may have finally ended."

Arafat's decision to declare a cease-fire on Dec. 16 and to authorize the arrests of suspected militants and those who support them - widely criticized among Palestinians as undemocratic and authoritarian "political arrests" - have not hurt Arafat's standing.

Except for a burst of violence Sunday night in which Israeli troops killed six Palestinians reportedly preparing to conduct attacks, the cease-fire seems to be holding. The Associated Press calculates that one Israeli has been killed in political violence since mid-December, compared with 37 such deaths during the first half of the month. More than 70 Palestinians were killed in December, most of them before the cease-fire.

But Palestinian officials and analysts say the cease-fire will not last unless Israel begins to reciprocate in ways that ordinary Palestinians can appreciate. Since Arafat's cease-fire, Israel has more or less maintained its harsh measures.

At the very least, Palestinians demand that the Israelis stop assassinating suspected militants, withdraw from Palestinian-ruled areas, and lift the "closure" of their cities, towns, and villages - the Israeli roadblocks and restrictions that stifle economic activity and freedom of movement.

Mediators and diplomats are also working to create a "political horizon" - indications that Israel is willing to engage the Palestinians on their core issue: the emergence of an independent Palestinian state.

Indeed, Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres met recently with the speaker of the Palestinian Legislative Council, Ahmed Qurei, in an apparent effort to create just such a horizon. But Prime Minister Ariel Sharon - for whom the idea of in-depth negotiations is politically risky - has been stating publicly that no serious discussions will take place without Israeli Cabinet approval.

Given the makeup of the Cabinet, which contains several rightwing politicians opposed to such talks, the horizon Mr. Peres might like to bring near may end up being more of a rainbow.

In the meantime, Hamas leaders say that their continued willingness to cease suicide bombings is contingent on Israeli actions. The cessation "will be evaluated every now and then," says Hamas spokesman Yousef.

The organization's inclination to heed the arguments of Arafat aides such as Hussein Sheikh is not purely a response to Sept. 11 and the deepened pariah status that those accused of terrorism now enjoy. Although Yousef says Hamas's decision was purely an internal calculation designed to maintain unity and "save Palestinian blood," there may be a deal afoot.

While Arafat's security forces have arrested nearly 200 members of Hamas and a smaller group, Islamic Jihad, and shut down a number of offices related to the two organizations, it seems as if the Palestinian authorities are stopping well short of the wholesale crackdown that Israel is demanding.

"He's deterring them, he's not destroying them," says Khalil Shikaki, director of the PCPSR, referring to Arafat's actions against the Islamic groups.

Omar Mohammed Hamdan, director of the Social and Charitable Reformation Society in Ramallah, says his organization's work has been brought to a halt since Palestinian security officers sealed its offices at 1 a.m. on Dec. 16.

Like many similar institutions in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, the society raises money from wealthy organizations and individuals, primarily in the Arab states of the Persian Gulf, and provides social services to Palestinians.

The US and Israel assert that such organizations also funnel money to militants, thereby constituting what the Israelis call "the infrastructure of terror."

But Hamdan and Hamas's Yousef both insist that the society has no connection with Hamas, although it is arguably true that recipients of Islamic charity are more likely to support Islamist politicians.

Still, Arafat's Palestinian Authority has been selective in its approach to such organizations. Yousef notes that that while the administrative offices of the main Islamic charity in Ramallah have been closed, the organization has been able to continue functioning. And a large Islamic charitable organization in the southern West Bank city of Hebron also continues its work.

Despite the lack of formal connections, these organizations contribute mightily to the appeal of Hamas, which is at heart a social and political movement. Its militant activities may generate a grim, short-term satisfaction among Palestinians, but its long-term supporters are nurtured in Islamic schools, health clinics, and charities.

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