Our audience with Arafat

When I crossed into this West Bank city the other day, I had to line up with everyone else and carry my bags through a checkpoint.

But then the young Israeli soldiers staffing it allowed a taxi to take me across the 200-yard transit zone. Most Palestinians get no such favors. I saw five men struggling to carry a restaurant-size refrigerator on their backs across the zone.

Israel has made a sizable investment in erecting fences with transit zones like this one around Palestinian cities – a sign that Israel has embarked on a long-term policy. The West Bank is being diced into a series of isolated, economically strangled Palestinian ghettoes.

Three weeks after intensive global diplomacy lifted the Israeli sieges around Yasser Arafat's headquarters here and at the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, life in the Holy Land remains extremely tense. It could explode into a broader conflagration at any moment.

Both the Israelis and Palestinians are experiencing serious government crises that stem directly from the continuing crisis between them. On May 20, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon fired four cabinet members who had challenged austerity measures necessitated by the high costs of the conflict. On the Palestinian side, 20 of the 30 ministers in Mr. Arafat's Palestinian Authority (PA) submitted their resignations just two days earlier, amid loud protests from Palestinians that the PA had betrayed their interests by failing to protect their people from the Israeli incursions of recent weeks, and by agreeing to humiliating terms for the resolution of the two sieges.

Feelings remain raw. On May 19, a Palestinian suicide bomber killed three Israelis in the port city of Netanya. West Bank Palestinians braced for a harsh Israeli response. Here in Ramallah, the city's 200,000 Palestinians feel some relief that Israeli forces have finally pulled back to the city's perimeter. But the Palestinians found that many of the national institutions here had been trashed and gutted by the Israelis.

Meanwhile, the Israelis still launch raids into this and other Palestinian cities whenever they want, leading to a pervasive sense of Palestinian insecurity. The tight noose of Israeli control around Palestinian cities has made economic recovery impossible.

For now, the Palestinians seem unable to challenge Israel's harsh measures. During the April incursions, the Israelis smashed most of the social-affairs and security infrastructures that the PA had built up under the 1993 Oslo agreement. So long as Arafat was besieged and Prime Minister Sharon was calling for his ouster, the Palestinians rallied around him. But as soon as the siege was lifted, he met a barrage of criticism from his people. At the Palestinian academic conference I attended, one participant even asked whether the PA had perhaps been just a "junior subcontractor" for the Israelis all along.

I heard several Palestinians remark that Arafat has now led his people to three major defeats: in Jordan in 1970, in Beirut in 1982, and now the destruction of most of the PA. This last one will most probably be his last defeat. A group of us from the conference had a 30-minute visit with Arafat. He seemed unable to describe a strategy his people might follow, and allowed his advisers to interrupt and contradict him. I've followed his career closely for nearly 30 years, and have never seen him so lacking the capacities of a national leader.

He also seemed staggeringly insensitive to the concerns of people appalled by attacks on civilians. One of his aides noted that Arafat always condemns suicide bombings. But at one point Arafat himself said that history's first-ever author of a suicide operation was Samson. "Samson!" he exulted. "The first suicide bomber ever – and he was Jewish!"

"We have to follow this great example given by one of the Prophets," he added, in what seemed an attempt at a joke. If so, it was in grotesquely bad taste, and showed a stunning failure to understand key dimensions of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Most Palestinians know that Arafat is a fast-fading force. The battle to succeed him has already been joined – mainly by leaders of the different Palestinian security forces. At another level, hundreds of thousands of ordinary Palestinians are openly debating what kinds of policy and activism can replace Arafat's failed policies. At the conference I attended, there were many criticisms of the suicide bombers, and calls for Palestinians to find new, creative ways to resist Israel's increasingly painful occupation of the West Bank and Gaza.

The Bush administration needs to intervene rapidly and decisively to keep the hope of a negotiated peace alive. Many Israelis have also called for the rapid intervention of outsiders to save them from a crisis whose human and economic costs continue to mount.

When I flew into Israel, I got a fairly intensive grilling from a young Israeli security officer. I explained that I was going to a conference at a Palestinian university. After giving my bags a close inspection, she returned my passport. "I hope you can help to get us out of this terrible mess we're in," she told me, with a friendly – if furtive – smile.

• Helena Cobban is the author of five books on international issues.

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