Hemmed In

Sharon targets Arafat.

Charmaine Seitz

Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat isn't so happy anymore.
Ramallah, The West BankAs Yasser Arafat sits hunkered down in his Ramallah compound, Israeli tanks surrounding his office, the Palestinian leader is hosting a stream of visitorsPalestinian artists and intellectuals, Canadian television broadcasters, Japanese journalists and whole salons of Israeli reporters.

But the guests he would most like to court, U.S. Middle East envoy Anthony Zinni, in particular, have yet to knock on his door. As the Palestinian-Israeli confrontations grow more bloody by the day, Palestinians sound almost desperate in their calls for international intercession.

Due to the absence of other influential parties, we continue our call for U.S. intervention, Palestinian Legislative Council member Qadoura Faris told Al Jazeera television. But these calls have not born fruit, particularly in the absence of an effective position from the Arabs. Egyptian and Jordanian contacts with the Palestinian leader have become almost non-existent, say despairing Arafat aides.

The most recent escalation of violence came just after Arafat had managed to create a measure of calm. The Israeli assassination of Raed Karmi of the military wing of Arafats Fateh faction on January 14 were followed by the killing of six Israelis three days later, including guests dancing at a Jewish girls bat mitzvah party. In reprisal, the Israeli army bombed Palestinian security offices with F-16s, destroyed the offices of the Voice of Palestine radio station, and invaded Tulkarem and Ramallah, placing tanks just meters from Arafats door.

Meanwhile, Washington is sounding increasingly tough. President George W. Bush says that he is very disappointed with Arafats efforts to curb terrorism. These comments further aggravate Arafats predicamenthow to answer international demands that he round up the very armed groups that form the base of his support among angered Palestinians.

Tensions were heightened by the interception of a boat in January loaded with 50 tons of Katushya rockets and plastic explosives. The captain of the boat was interviewed on Israeli television saying that the arms, bought from Iran, were headed for the Palestinian Authority. Palestinian officials initially denied any such relationship, but on January 28, the Palestinian Authority announced it had detained the man accused of planning the mission and issued arrest warrants for two others who remain abroad. Arafat still disavows his involvement.

The move is not likely to satisfy those in the Bush administration who are already clamoring to cut ties with the Palestinian Authority. But Palestinians on the street either say that they have every right to arm themselves against an Israeli army that easily outguns them, or they dismiss the Israeli charges outright. Why, they say, would Arafat go to Iran to buy arms when there are plenty to be had on the Israeli black market?

The United States still has not made up its mind about Arafat, largely due to concerns that the situation without him would be much worse. But some members of the Israeli cabinet are again calling for Arafats removal to a third country, in demands reminiscent of a vetoed 1982 plan to extract Arafat from Beirut with a helicopter and a fishing net. To tell the truth, Im sorry we didnt eliminate him then, Sharon told the Israeli newspaper Maariv on January 31.

Palestinians, of course, are angered by and dismissive of such talk. Arafats Fateh faction has warned that harming President Arafat in any way will result in extreme perils beyond the imagination of any Israeli. Representatives of the 1 million Arabs inside Israel issued a statement that damage to Arafat would set the entire region ablaze.

The thing that Israel does not seem to understand, Palestinians say, is that there is no Palestinian leader more moderate than Arafat. His very political weakness now results from an unwillingness to abandon the option of peace, despite loud calls from many Palestinians to stop what has been called an appeasement policy and to commit to a more aggressive fight.

Despite the tanks surrounding Arafats office, there are those who still believe the Palestinian leader will remain part of the Middle East equation after Ariel Sharon is long gone. Israeli public opinion took a significant turn in recent weeks, when some voices charged the army with war crimes when it demolished the homes of 500 Palestinian families, all the while claiming they were empty. Now, more than 60 Israeli servicemen and reservists have signed a petition refusing to serve in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. We shall not continue to fight beyond the 1967 borders in order to dominate, expel, starve and humiliate an entire people, the petition declared.

The Israeli economy is sinking, and Sharons military solution has brought nothing but more bloodshed, both of which could cause trouble for the Israeli coalition in coming weeks. In the meantime, Arafats strategy is to do just enough to stay alive and with his people, and not enough to cause his political end.

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