JERUSALEM, Oct. 15 (JTA) — Yasser Arafat is facing what may prove the most serious threat to his leadership since he returned from exile in 1994 to lead the Palestinian Authority.
A week after three Palestinians were killed following a Hamas-led demonstration in the Gaza Strip in support of suspected terror mastermind Osama bin Laden, Gaza remains tense.
On Sunday, the families of Palestinians killed during the demonstration threatened to organize mass street protests unless those responsible for the deaths were punished.
The threat was issued a day after a third Palestinian died from wounds suffered during the Oct. 8 clashes. Two died at the demonstration, during which 10 Palestinian police were injured.
The Palestinian Authority rejects accusations that police killed the three, saying “masked men” had opened fire.
Immediately after the demonstration, Palestinian police ordered the closure of several schools, briefly arrested at least one Palestinian journalist who had been critical of the Palestinian Authority, and kept foreign journalists from entering Gaza to prevent coverage of any future demonstrations.
Those restrictions were lifted in subsequent days. On Saturday, Palestinian officials allowed the reopening of two Hamas-run universities, Al- Azhar and the Islamic University.
Just the same, angry students warned that clashes with police would recur if the Palestinian Authority failed to punish those responsible for the three deaths.
Arafat has been in a bind since the Sept. 11 terror attacks against the United States.
Referring to the 1948 incident when Israel’s first prime minster, David Ben-Gurion, ordered the downing of a boat running weapons to dissident Jewish groups that threatened to undermine the central government, one Israeli security source called the current showdown “Arafat’s Altalena.”
Arafat has been forced to choose between President Bush and bin Laden — and despite bin Laden’s popularity among some segments of Palestinian society, he chose Bush, at least initially.
He made the choice as a matter of survival, even if the decision ultimately pits him against Palestinian militants, who overwhelmingly support bin Laden.
Some analysts, however, question Arafat’s sincerity, noting that he has done just enough to appear to be taking a stand against terror while leaving himself the option of allowing terror again if he concludes that the Bush administration is not serious about pressing its war against terror globally.
Arafat became the first Arab leader to condemn the attacks against the World Trade Center and Pentagon and express support for the international anti-terror coalition Bush began building.
Bush responded by making two recent statements supporting the creation of a Palestinian state.
The most recent came during a primetime news conference on Oct. 11, when Bush said he believes that if Israel and the Palestinian Authority could end violence and begin political negotiations, then “there ought to be a Palestinian state, the boundaries of which will be negotiated by the parties.”
Bush also said the Palestinian state would have to recognize Israel’s right to exist and treat Israel with respect.
On Monday, after meeting with Arafat in London, British Prime Minister Tony Blair also gave his support for the creation of a “viable Palestinian state.”
Referring to the Bush statements backing Palestinian statehood, Hanan Ashrawi, a member of the Palestinian legislature and spokeswoman for the Arab League, called them a “marked departure from standard operating procedure.”
“This is the first time that it is not basically an Israeli” document simply “given an American seal of approval,” she said.
While Arafat and Bush are giving each other mutual support, there is a growing rift separating Arafat from radical Palestinian Islamists.
“The present intifada has undergone a process of Islamization,” wrote Danny Rubinstein of the Israeli daily Ha’aretz. “Not in vain is it called ‘the Al-Aksa Intifada,’ ” he said, referring to the Jerusalem mosque where Palestinian violence erupted in September 2000.
Arafat rode the Islamic wave of anti-Israel sentiment from the outset of the intifada. The move both ensured his survival and deflected criticism of Palestinian Authority responsibility for the plight of the Palestinian-ruled territories.
In Israel, right wingers — and even many former peaceniks — saw Arafat’s support for the violent uprising and his tolerance of terror as proof that he never really intended to make peace with Israel.
But now, faced with American warnings that he could be considered part of the terrorist camp if he did not come out squarely against bin Laden, Palestinian police arrested several Islamic terrorists for the first time since the intifada began last fall.
But even this was done in typical Arafat fashion: Out of a list of 108 terrorists on Israel’s most-wanted list that Israel had asked him to detain, Arafat had only six or eight put under “house arrest” — a comfy status that Israel says is designed to protect the men from possible Israeli reprisals.
At the same time, Palestinian authorities clamped down on media coverage of anti-American protests. Along with the newspaper editor who was arrested, a TV show criticizing a police crackdown of a pro-bin Laden rally was taken off the air.
In an effort to follow up on Bush administration requests to defuse Israeli-Palestinian violence, over the weekend Arafat reportedly reached an agreement with Hamas and Islamic Jihad that the two groups would refrain, at least temporarily, from carrying out terror attacks on Israeli targets.
Publicly, however, there was no sign that the groups had reached such an agreement.
Quite the opposite: Over the weekend, the Islamic groups issued statements vowing to continue the struggle against Israel and again charging that Palestinian police were responsible for killing the three at last week’s demonstration.
Maj. Gen. Amos Malka, head of intelligence for the Israel Defense Force, said at the Israeli government’s weekly Cabinet meeting Sunday that any agreement between Arafat and the fundamentalists could well prove short-lived.
This opinion was shared by reserve Col. Yonni Fiegel, a former military governor in the West Bank and presently a senior lecturer at the Inter-Disciplinary Academic Center in Herzliyah.
Indeed, Fiegel said, “if Islamic militants feel that they want to act inside Israel, they will not necessarily ask for Arafat’s permission.”
Two incidents in recent days could well spark renewed terror attacks against Israel.
On Sunday, Israeli soldiers shot and killed Abed-Rahman Hamad, a Hamas leader accused of dispatching the suicide bomber who carried out the June 1 attack outside a Tel Aviv disco that killed 21 Israeli youth.
Hamas vowed that “Israel will pay a very heavy price for this act.”
Hamad had been arrested by the Palestinian Authority in June, but was released in August.
On Monday, an Islamic militant was killed in an explosion in the West Bank city of Nablus. Palestinian officials said Israel was behind the death of Hamas member Ahmed Marshoud, but Israel had no immediate comment.
It remains to be seen how far Arafat will go to stop any threats to his authority from Hamas or Islamic Jihad.
“The question is whether he is willing to risk a civil war to enforce his will,” Fiegel said.
On the other hand, he added, Arafat might be more inclined to pursue a “shoot and talk” policy, which “he has long been accustomed to” when dealing with Israel.