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News Analysis: Violent Clashes in Territories Strengthen Arafat’s Position

Palestinian Authority leader Yasser Arafat has emerged far stronger than he was before last week’s bloodshed.

The widespread fighting in the West Bank and Gaza that erupted over Israel’s opening of a new entrance to an archaeological tunnel near the Temple Mount united extremist and moderate Palestinians behind Arafat.

The consensus that was so swiftly built around the Palestinian leader also included Israel’s Arab citizens, who held a general strike last Friday and a protest in Nazareth that turned into a violent clash with Israeli police.

“You must understand,” said Ahmad Jabarin, 25, of Umm el-Fahm. “This is no longer a national conflict, it is a religious one. And in religion we are all united.”

Whatever happens this week in Washington — where Arafat was slated to attend a meeting with President Clinton, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and other regional leaders — Arafat has already found new strength, not only among his own people, but also in the international arena.

His international support was evident Saturday, when the U.N. Security Council voted 14-0 on a resolution that indirectly called on Israel to close the tunnel entrance. It did not even mention the use of force by the Palestinian police.

Among his own people, Arafat’s prime consideration in the crisis was his own survival.

The man who in recent weeks had failed several times to rally the masses behind him, the man who had become the target of wide-ranging criticism from his own people, felt that unless he took drastic action, the Palestinian Authority might collapse.

Last week’s opening of the tunnel entrance provided Arafat with a new opportunity.

On Sept. 24, Arafat described the opening of the tunnel entrance as a “crime against our religious and holy places,” and called on his people to launch a massive protest.

The next day, armed Palestinian police joined a stone-throwing populace for a threeday confrontation with Israeli soldiers and settlers in the West Bank and Gaza Strip that was the bloodiest since the 1967 Six-Day War.

Israeli intelligence officers said this week that they had no doubts that it was Arafat who personally instructed Palestinian police to open fire on Israeli troops.

Their assessment contradicted earlier speculation that Arafat had lost control over his police.

Ze’ev Schiff, the military analyst of the Israeli daily Ha’aretz, wrote this week that Arafat seeks to keep the territories in a continuous state of tension.

He will achieve this, wrote Schiff, by inciting the masses while ordering his policemen to cease fire.

After months during which he seemed to lose ground among his own people, Arafat has found a formula to rally their support.

He acted as chief flag-bearer in the struggle against what he described as an Israeli declaration of war on Islam’s most sacred sites.

And in the process he beat his rivals, the Hamas fundamentalists, at their own game.

“I am not a religious believer,” Ali Jiddah, a former member of the rejectionist Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, said in an interview.

“But as far as I am concerned, the opening of the tunnel is a declaration of war against the Palestinian people. If Netanyahu wants war, he will get one. We have nothing to lose, only you do.”

Before the tunnel opening, it would have been hard to believe that people like Jiddah — or the leadership of Hamas — would rally behind Arafat.

“It is a totally different and new situation,” said the Israel Defense Force chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Amnon Shahak, who admitted that he was taken by surprise by the drastic Palestinian reaction to the opening of the tunnel.

Arafat was the man responsible for the surprise and in the days ahead, he will do his best to capitalize on it.

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