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David Miller: What Now For Yasser Arafat?

David Miller Online
What Now For Yasser Arafat?

The Palestinian suicide bombings that killed 25 people and wounded dozens at the weekend are not only the deadliest strike on Israeli targets since the Intifada began but also another incident that brings into question the degree of authority Palestinian president Yasser Arafat has within the territories under his authority’s control. It is not surprising that Israel is blaming Mr. Arafat for the bombings and the United States has also demanded that the Palestinian leader to more to rein in those responsible. Given the events at the weekend and the scale and precision of the bombing is this another indication that Mr. Arafat is losing control?

Since the bombings, Mr. Arafat has come under intense US pressure to crack down on militants. Given that September 11 is still so fresh in everyone’s minds this is not surprising. President Bush demanded that Arafat bring those responsible for the attacks to justice and "act swiftly and decisively against the organisations that support them". Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon was in Washington at the time of the attacks and will now face pressure from his own people and constituency to retaliate.

These attacks place the United States in a tough situation. There will be sympathy within the US for Israel, which is an ally that is also under terrorist assault. However Washington must also tread carefully. The Bush Administration needs the support, at least the silence of the Middle East countries if it is to conduct its war in Afghanistan and will need this to be the case even more especially if it decides that Iraq is next on the list.

The problem for Mr. Arafat is that each bombing places more pressure on his authority and makes him look like a man that is losing his grip on power. Immediately after the strikes happened Mr. Arafat held an emergency meeting with his security chiefs and they agreed to introduce strict new measures, including banning all armed demonstrations and any public display of arms. The Palestinian Authority has vowed to make its presence felt throughout the areas under its control and arrest those responsible for the bombings in Israel. But will this be enough to save Mr. Arafat’s government?

The outlook does not look promising. For a start, there is the usual finger pointing and blame appropriation that follows a bombing or an Israeli military action that ends in death. In this case, the Palestinians are claiming that it is down to Israel to end the violence and demanding that Israelis withdraw their forces from the occupied territories. This scenario becomes even more unlikely given that Israel had completed a withdrawal from some of the Palestinian land the week prior to the attacks and it is highly unlikely Mr. Sharon will condone further troop pull outs now.

Despite Mr. Arafat's statement condemning the bombings and declaration of a state of emergency in Palestinian areas while ordering his security forces to arrest militants, he cannot escape the blame being laid at his door. Immediately after the incidents occurred CNN interviewed a member of his cabinet who was in no doubt that Mr. Arafat was responsible and in his view was deliberately lenient on the radical groups. Israel refers to this as a swinging door policy where a suspect is arrested then promptly released. They claim that this is the method Mr. Arafat and his government are using to undermine the peace process. Whether this view is correct or not it appears to be the one most prevalent.

The problem for Mr. Arafat is that he is in no-man’s land. He cannot afford to do nothing in a situation such as this and if he is to maintain any credibility with the international community he must act and act swiftly and effectively. However if he goes down this road he faces the possibility of civil war among his people. It is unlikely that groups such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad would tolerate any arrests of their members or restrictions being placed on their activities. They to have their agendas and goals and if they believe violence is the best way to achieve them then that is the road they will take.

In a conflict such as this one, there are always those hardliners who wish to create a climate of violence and fear, as this is the way that they can come to the fore and remain a factor in any equation. We have seen this so often in Northern Ireland and we are witnessing it again in the Middle East. I do not believe that Mr. Arafat can stem the tide of violence in the Middle East and I do not believe that Mr. Sharon will compromise under these circumstances. The problem here is that for the peace process to work then Mr. Arafat must remain in power and the man to whom Israel talks to. If he is deposed or becomes ineffectual then the door is open for the hardliners to emerge and then peace may be lost forever.

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