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10 December 2001

The scene is set for another Lebanon

Arafat's real crisis is among his own people. They see him as just an Israeli sheriff who happens to

By Charles Glass

How much time will this colonial war continue; how many more victims on either side will it claim, and will Israel part company with the Palestinians as friends and allies or will it leave both sides – both Palestinians and Israelis – with feelings of rage and vengeance, feelings that might continue for generations?
Professor Baruch Kimmerling, writing in Ha’aretz, 4 December

Another Palestinian has killed himself in Jerusalem. He was walking towards the David Citadel Hotel in King David Street, where two Israeli ministers were staying. The minister of public security, Uzi Landau, and the religious affairs minister, Asher Ohana, could not have known that the boy was on his way to kill them. Then, at 7.35 in the morning, an explosion shook the hotel. The boy obliterated himself prematurely, before he could get anywhere near the ministers. Perhaps he was nervous, perhaps the detonator was shoddy. That was on Wednesday, 5 December. His attempted murder was itself a response, or revenge for, Israel’s bombardment the previous day of the West Bank and Gaza. On Tuesday, the Israelis killed three Palestinians. The youngest was 15, and died when the Israeli army bombed the West Bank and Gaza in response to the weekend bombs that killed 25 in Haifa, which were in turn an answer to the assassination of the Islamic Jihad leader, Mahmoud Abu Hanoud, whom Israel murdered in response to . . . And so it goes.

When the pieces of the bomber’s body were found on the Jewish, western side of this very divided city, an Israeli government spokesman, Arye Mekel, said of Yasser Arafat, the chairman of the Palestinian Authority: “So far, he has not heard our message, and we may have to send some more.”

The Israeli messages to Arafat have grown louder and more determined over the past year. The Israeli prime minister, Ariel Sharon, holds Arafat responsible for all actions against Israel by Palestinians, whether they belong to Arafat’s police, his paramilitary Fatah commandos or his rivals in the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, Islamic Jihad and Hamas. The Israeli rhetoric echoes the policy towards Lebanon in the late 1960s and 1970s. In those days, Israel held Lebanon culpable for all Palestinian attacks. Israel sent messages to Lebanon by bombing villages and refugee camps in the southern part of that country, by assassinating Palestinian officials based in Beirut and by bombing Beirut itself. The message: the Lebanese must either control the Palestine Liberation Organisation or face the consequences.

In the event, the consequence was a civil war that destroyed the Lebanese state and left it a Syrian colony. As defence minister in 1982, Sharon put an end to Arafat and the PLO in Lebanon with his siege of Beirut and the massacres of Palestinian civilians in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps. The brutality of the invasion caused many Lebanese, who had grown weary of PLO misrule in west Beirut, to fight on the Arafat side. What effect will attacking Arafat in Ramallah have on his own people, most of whom, like the Lebanese between 1976 and 1982, have profound misgivings about his leadership?

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Can Yasser Arafat control those who would attack Israel? This is the question, as framed by Ariel Sharon and repeated by the George W Bush administration. Perhaps he can, just as Sharon can control the Israeli forces who bomb Palestinians, assassinate Palestinians, humiliate Palestinians at roadblocks, interrogate Palestinians with “moderate physical pressure” and take Palestinian land. Will either side “control” its own? This is crucial because, as Sami Michael, the Israeli Jewish writer, told the daily Ha’aretz in September: “The street leads the leaders and not the other way around. The policy of the government is to respond.”

A few days before the bombardments, I saw the mayor of Nablus, Ghassan Shakah, at his offices. Nablus is the largest city on the West Bank and, with light factories and food-processing plants, the closest thing to an industrial heartland that the Palestinians have. Nablus was surviving on only one hour of water a day (but the nearby Israeli settlements had an uninterrupted supply). When electricity lines were damaged, Shakah said, his engineers had to wait days for Israeli permission to leave the city limits to repair them.

Shakah is very much a part of the Arafat apparatus in Nablus, a Fatah member from an old, established family. “To be frank, I don’t know when we will collapse,” he said. “Since 1994, we are trying to tell our people about prosperity, security, a Palestinian state, peace. But, every time, the Israelis insist on showing us as liars to our people.”

Arafat was one half of the Oslo agreement of 1993, which allowed the Palestinians to lose more than 10,000 acres of their land even while the settler population in the territories doubled and a small class of Arafat loyalists enriched themselves.

In the 20 per cent of the West Bank and the 80 per cent of Gaza that Arafat’s forces are allowed to police, his job has been to arrest Palestinians who threaten Israel. US officials encouraged him to try them before secret military courts. Now, if the Palestinians do not want to be ruled by an Israeli sheriff who speaks their language, Arafat is in trouble. He should convince them that he governs in their interest – that he wants the end of occupation and the creation of an independent state – and at the same time he must persuade the Israelis that he is their man. It is a hard trick to pull off, and, so far, he has failed to do it.