Israelis debate extent of Arafat’s control

JERUSALEM, July 30 (JTA) — Israeli officials once again are debating whether Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat is losing control over his own people.

The debate harks back to seemingly distant days when the Oslo peace process appeared to be on track but was punctuated by periodic attacks on Israel by Palestinian militants.

Now, as then, the debate focuses on whether Arafat truly is calling the shots.

What is new is the stance now adopted by some Israelis that the Israel Defense Force should launch a strike to topple Arafat.

During the past week, there were several events that might indicate that Arafat is losing ground to more militant groups.

Hamas militants have charged that Israeli officials are glad to see such signs of instability. But on the Israeli side of the divide, matters are far from clear.

Some Israeli policymakers eye with relish any sign that a Palestinian civil war is brewing. This, they believe, could mean the end of Arafat’s rule.

According to this thinking, Arafat’s demise would mean the end of a duplicitous leader who for years told Israelis what they wanted to hear — that he was committed to achieving a “peace of the brave” — while making radically different statements to Arab audiences.

According to this school, anyone would be preferable to Arafat — even Hamas, whose terrorist outrages presumably would aid Israel in the court of world opinion. In addition, there probably would be far less backlash in the West should Israel later overthrow a Hamas-led regime.

Then there are those Israeli officials who, despite their disenchantment with Arafat, believe there is no better alternative.

Many officials have suggested that Arafat deliberately creates the impression that he has lost control in order to evade blame for terror attacks against Israel.

As the debate continues, the government of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has taken no steps to overthrow Arafat.

In that government, the top official calling for continued dialogue with Arafat is Foreign Minister Shimon Peres.

On Monday, Israel’s Foreign Ministry leaked a document that suggests offering large amounts of land to the Palestinians to induce Arafat to return to negotiations.

The document reflected what are viewed as the large differences between Sharon and Peres on how to deal with 10 months of Israeli-Palestinian violence.

Among those siding with Peres is Center Party member Dan Meridor, chairman of the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee.

Meridor argues that Arafat still has the power to restore peace — and that Israel should put more pressure on him to do so.

Arguing against overthrowing Arafat and sending him into exile, Meridor said this week that “we must ask ourselves not for the momentary effect, but rather what will be the long-term result” of Arafat’s ouster.

“The problem is not Arafat, but Israel’s relations with the Palestinians,” Meridor said.

Those who believe that Arafat is losing his grip on power point to two recent events.

One was the recent revival of a family feud that dates back to the early 1990s.

Last Friday, a Palestinian youth shot a Palestinian officer at point-blank range, killing him, in the town market of Khan Yunis. Some 10 years ago, it is believed that the officer had killed the boy’s father on suspicion of collaborating with Israel.

Last Friday’s murder soon developed into a bloody shootout between two families.

In four hours of fierce fighting, at least nine people died and scores of others were wounded before Palestinian police managed to restore order.

In a second incident earlier last week, Arafat cut short a visit to the Persian Gulf to deal with rioting that erupted after Palestinian security officials arrested a number of members of Hamas and the Popular Resistance Committee, a group that wants a more violent uprising than the Palestinian Authority is pursuing.

The July 23 arrests set off a riot in Gaza City, where hundreds of people, including Hamas gunmen, threw rocks and fired at the home of Moussa Arafat, the commander of Palestinian military intelligence and a relative of the Palestinian leader.

No one was hurt, but it was one of the strongest shows of Palestinian anger against the P.A. leadership since the uprising began last September.

Palestinian security officials had arrested the militants for mortar attacks on Israeli targets in the Gaza Strip and within Israel proper.

However, the arrests did not affect events in the field: Palestinian mortar attacks have continued almost daily during the past week.

On Saturday, Israel retaliated by bombing Palestinian targets in Gaza that it described as munition factories.

In another strike Monday, Israeli helicopters attacked the main Palestinian police headquarters in Gaza City. The army said it targeted a building “used to manufacture weapons and mortar bombs.”

Last week’s rioting, which later spread to Palestinian refugee camps in Gaza, marked a new low in relations between Hamas and the Palestinian Authority since Hamas announced in June that it would not abide by a cease-fire Arafat had declared.

Last week, Palestinian officials blamed Hamas for deliberately escalating the situation, warning that they would not tolerate “a government within a government.” Ismayil Hanniyeh, a senior Hamas activist, deflected the charges onto Israel, suggesting that Israel was deliberately trying to split the Palestinian camp.

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