Arafat long ago lost his allure among his people

On 1 November a 16-year-old Palestinian detonated himself in Tel Aviv. In the bloody annals of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict it was a lesser carnage: three Israelis were killed, and roughly 30 wounded. Some Israeli police officials breathed their relief that although any attack is bad, this one - given the time (around noon) and place (a crowded market) - could have been much worse.

The main significance was that it was the first bombing inside Israel since Yasser Arafat's dramatic flight to Paris, amid a wash of rumours that the 75-year-old Palestinian icon was wrestling with death. It also highlighted the different Israeli and Palestinian responses to his illness, the gravest threat to his life in 40 years of stewarding the Palestinian struggle.

For most Israelis, the end of Arafat is a moment of hope. They will be ridding themselves of a nemesis whom they believe spurned peace in favour of the intifada and bloodshed. For some in the Israeli government, it will be an opportunity to wait until a new, more malleable, Palestinian leadership "emerges".

The latest suicide bomber in Tel Aviv shows just how skewed those prognoses are, say Palestinians. In the current garrison realities of the occupied territories, the "alternative" leadership may be drawn not from among the grand old men who guard Arafat's vacant chair in Ramallah, but from those nationalist and Islamist militiamen who proclaim themselves the true defenders (and avengers) of the Palestinian cause.

This is why many Palestinians greeted the news of their leader's sickness with a shrug of the shoulders. "For a long time he has had no effect on our lives," commented one woman in Ramallah. What does govern their lives is the Israeli occupation.

The last suicide bombing inside Israel prior to Tel Aviv occurred in September. Between the two, the Israeli army killed 165 Palestinians in the occupied territories, including 159 during Israeli military offensives in Gaza last month, ostensibly to staunch the firing of mortars. Of these, at least 50 were civilians, including women, the aged and children. In Nablus - from near where the Tel Aviv bomber originated - more than 400 Palestinians have been killed since the second intifada erupted in September 2000.

Marooned in his Ramallah headquarters, Arafat lost his allure among his people because of his failure to provide them with the most minimal protection, whether from the Israeli army at their gates or the militias that increasingly rule their streets. Nor is there much hope that things would change should he die. On the contrary, they could get worse, says a Palestinian cabinet member: "Believe me, what Arafat could not do with the security situation, his successors will not be able to do."

What would change the "situation"? Prior to Arafat's illness, Ariel Sharon, Israel's prime minister, won parliamentary approval for his so-called disengagement plan. This envisions the evacuation of every Jewish settlement in Gaza as well as a handful in the West Bank. There are some in his government - and even more abroad - urging him to grasp the nettle of Arafat's absence. They say Sharon should turn the unilateral withdrawal into a negotiated one with the Palestinians and an imposed solution into the start of a new political process.

There is scant sign that Sharon is listening. "If a different, serious Palestinian leadership will be formed to dismantle the terrorist infrastructure, we will renew negotiations," he told his cabinet on 31 October. But "nothing has changed in the field until now, so there is no point in changing the plan".

Sharon has been singing this refrain to the Palestinians for the past three years: "Fight terror first. Then negotiations." It has enabled him to tighten Israel's grip on the West Bank and to avoid substantive negotiations towards a final agreement. Yet it has not ended the mortars in Gaza or the suicide bombers in Tel Aviv. Nor will it, regardless of whether Arafat dies in Paris or lives in the West Bank. Why? "Because the issue is not Arafat: it's the occupation," says the woman in Ramallah.