The noose tightens

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On 3 December, as soon as he returned from Washington, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon declared war on the Palestinians and Yasser Arafat’s Palestinian Authority (PA), in revenge for last weekend’s suicide bombings in Israel which killed dozens of civilians and off-duty soldiers. Sharon is believed to have won authorisation for his onslaught from US President George Bush.

Shortly before dusk on Monday, while most Palestinians were at home breaking the Ramadan fast, the Israeli air force, including F-16 fighter jets and Apache helicopter gunships, struck PA headquarters and police stations in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank. Gunships pulverised two helicopters used by Arafat with air to ground missiles. And a third helicopter, the last owned by the PA, was also damaged.

The destruction of the helicopters was apparently intended to humiliate Arafat, who uses them frequently to travel about the occupied territories.

Fuel depots near PA headquarters in Gaza were also rocketed, sending a huge fireball and a big cloud of black smoke billowing over the Gaza coast.

At least four Palestinian security personnel were killed and scores were injured.

A few hours after the air strikes on Gaza, Israeli tanks, accompanied by bulldozers, ripped into the runway of Gaza International Airport, another measure intended to humiliate the Palestinian leader.

In Jenin in the West Bank, Israeli F-16 fighters thrice attacked Palestinian police stations, destroying several buildings.

In Bethlehem, a home was bombed, killing a PA operative and injuring two others.

Israeli tanks and armoured vehicles later moved into several Palestinian towns, including Ramallah, where Israeli troops reportedly positioned themselves only 400 metres from the PA headquarters where Arafat was staying.

Tanks also reoccupied significant parts of Jenin and Tulkarm, and encircled Nablus and surrounding villages.

On 4 December, the following day, Israeli fighters and gunships launched another wave of strikes on official Palestinian buildings in Gaza, Khan Younis, Nablus, Salfit and Jenin, injuring several civilians.

At one stage in the bombardments, a missile hit Arafat’s headquarters in Ramallah.

Asked whether the intention was to kill the Palestinian leader, an Israeli army spokesman hinted that Arafat could be killed “inadvertently.”

“We have stated repeatedly that we don’t intend to harm him, but since he is responsible for terror, we had to hit something close to him personally,” the spokesman said.

Meanwhile, Israeli tanks strafed residential neighborhoods in southern Ramallah, seriously wounding two members of the same family, Hosni and Khulud Al-Sharif. At the time of writing, the aerial and artillery bombardment was continuing unabated throughout the West Bank and Gaza Strip, and casualty figures were rising steadily.

Throughout the operation Sharon has provided a running commentary, inciting Israelis against the PA. Addressing Israelis on television Monday evening, Sharon accused the PA of “sponsoring terror.” He also repeated the distorted analogy between the “the terror we are facing” and the “war on terror” in Afghanistan.

“Just as the United States is conducting its war against international terror, using all its might against terror, so will we too, with all the strength and determination and resources we have used until today, and with all resources at our disposal,” he said. Israel’s prime minister added: “This war of terror has been forced upon us. We know who is guilty, we know who is responsible. Arafat is responsible for everything that happens here.”

Sharon, typically, failed to wonder whether his country’s illegal occupation of Palestinian land may be the real reason behind violence between Palestinians and Israel. Since the start of the Intifada, six times as many Palestinian as Israeli civilians have been killed, mainly by the Israeli army and extremist Jewish settlers. During all that time, there has been no comparable US outcry against Israeli state terror.

It is clear that Israel’s assault aims to narrow Arafat’s options. Israel hopes that the Palestinian leader will be driven to crack down on popular Islamist groups Hamas and Islamic Jihad.

But it is also clear that Arafat cannot do so without risking civil war and losing whatever credibility he still has among his tormented people.

Palestinian leaders are well aware of this woeful quandary. One PA official, who spoke to Al- Ahram Weekly on condition of anonymity, was adamant that the PA would not betray its people. “We know that Sharon wants us to act as quislings on Israel’s behalf against our people and national interests, but we will never betray our people.”

The official added, “We may be able to face Hamas and the Islamic Jihad, but we won’t be able to face the Palestinian street. Anything we do will have to be accepted by a respectable majority of the people, otherwise we will look like a repressive arm for Sharon.”

Arafat, though, has responded to Israeli pressure — to a degree. He has declared a “state of emergency” throughout the self-rule areas, authorising his police forces to arrest any Palestinian ignoring the PA decision to observe a cease-fire with Israel. The PA has also arrested more than a hundred Islamist activists and political leaders. Among those arrested were Gaza Islamic Jihad spokesman Mohamed Al-Hindi and two prominent Hamas spokesmen, Ismail Haniya and Ismail Abu Shanab. It was even rumoured that Hamas spiritual leader Sheikh Ahmed Yassin was placed under house arrest.

Arafat’s whip in all of this was PA Chief of Preventive Security Jebril Rajoub, who warned that Hamas and Islamic Jihad actions posed a grave threat to “our national enterprise.” He added, “There is no doubt that the latest suicide bombings served Sharon’s goals. They targeted the wrong people, were carried out in the wrong place and at the wrong time.” Rajoub, whose 2,000-strong security force has remained more or less on the sidelines of the Intifada, said he would see that Arafat’s decisions and policies are heeded.

For its part, Hamas was defiant though it did appear to recognise the difficulties facing the PA leadership. “We are aware of the tremendous pressures exerted on Arafat, and we stand side by side with our brothers in the authority,” said spiritual leader Sheikh Yassin. He added, though, that “everybody should remember that we are defending ourselves and that nowhere in the world have the victims ever been asked not to resist their oppressors and tormentors.”

Yassin vehemently denied that Hamas conducted the two suicide bombings to scuttle the peace mission of US envoy Anthony Zinni. “It was Sharon who compromised Zinni’s visit by killing more than 20 Palestinians, including five children on their way to school. Does the world expect us to remain idle while our children are murdered by the Israeli occupiers?” the Sheikh asked.

Yet despite the death and pain Sharon and his army have inflicted on them, many Palestinians, including many Islamists, privately denounce the suicide attacks. A prominent Hamas religious leader in the Hebron region said privately that “killing innocent civilians is wrong, both religiously and morally. It should not be done, and it distorts our just struggle for freedom and liberation.”

Other PA officials denounced the bombings as the murder of innocents, though they blamed Sharon for indirectly causing them by slaughtering Palestinian leaders and civilians, especially in the few days leading up to Zinni’s visit.

“This is the inevitable cumulative outcome of the atrocities of the Israeli army against our civilians, the humiliation, the torment, the unmitigated persecution, the policy of narrowing our horizons, the assassinations, the building of settlements and house demolitions – all these evils were bound to end like this,” said PA Minister of Planning and International Cooperation, Nabil Shaath.

He ominously added, “Everybody should realise that atrocities breed atrocities and bloodshed on one side leads to bloodshed on the other.” The killing, it seems, may not be over. And in the meantime, Arafat is walking a political tightrope — which may yet become a noose.

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