JERUSALEM (Dec. 16)
Israeli and U.S. officials are skeptical after Yasser Arafat cast himself this week in the role of peacemaker.
After more than a year of bloodshed, the officials are well aware that the Palestinian leader can talk the talk. Now they want to see if he can walk the walk.
The skepticism was prompted by a televised address Sunday in which Arafat called on the Palestinian people to end “all military activities” against Israel.
Speaking on Palestinian television, Arafat also said, “I renew the call to completely halt any activities, especially suicide attacks, which we have condemned and always condemned.”
Arafat had some harsh words for Israeli officials, accusing them of “launching a brutal war” against the Palestinian Authority and its institutions, and urging them to return to peace talks.
In a warning to Hamas and Islamic Jihad, Arafat said he would “only allow one authority” in the areas under his control.
“We must not allow anyone to shake the credibility” of the Palestinian Authority’s “leadership and its decisions,” he said.
He vowed to prosecute those who ignored his directives.
“We will punish all planners” of terror attacks, Arafat said. “We will hunt down the violators firmly.”
Before his address, Palestinian officials closed dozens of offices in the West Bank and Gaza affiliated with Hamas or Islamic Jihad.
Soon after Arafat’s address, however, there were indications that at least some Palestinian militants had their own interpretation of the speech.
According to Israel’s Army Radio, militants affiliated with Arafat’s Fatah movement said they planned to continue attacks on Israeli soldiers and settlers. Explaining their stance, they said they believed Arafat had not explicitly ruled out such attacks in his speech.
Arafat issued the call at a time of mounting pressure on him to crack down on Palestinian terrorists.
Last week, the Israeli Cabinet labeled him “irrelevant” because of his inability to halt terrorism.
Issuing the declaration after a terror attack on a bus in the West Bank that left 10 Israelis dead and another 30 injured, the Cabinet also said Israel would henceforth see to its own security needs.
Following the declaration, Israel launched a series of operations over the weekend in the West Bank and Gaza Strip in an effort to round up terrorists.
At least 10 Palestinians were reported killed during the weekend operations, in which Israel nabbed some 50 terror suspects.
After Arafat made the address, a spokesman for Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said Israeli officials were going to take a wait-and-see approach to whether the Palestinian leader planned to put any teeth into his declarations.
“I must say, I have to be a little skeptical, because Arafat made these statements before,” Ra’anan Gissin said. “He made it on the 27th of September, when he accepted a cease-fire. We buried 67 people since then and 500 more were wounded.
“I want to judge Arafat by his deeds, not by his words,” he added.
U.S. officials offered much the same reaction.
“They are constructive words, but what is important is that he now take concrete action,” White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said in a statement.
Arafat’s speech came after U.S. officials recalled the Middle East envoy, former Marine Corps Gen. Anthony Zinni, for consultations in Washington.
On Sunday, U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell blamed Palestinian violence for Zinni’s departure from the Middle East.
“We sent Gen. Zinni over to try to get that dialogue going, and all of that was blown up by these terrorist organizations on the Palestinian side,” Powell said on “Fox News Sunday.”
“Hamas, a terrorist organization, started killing innocent civilians with car bombs in Jerusalem, Haifa and elsewhere. And they attacked this process; they attacked innocent Israelis,” Powell said.
Powell suggested it could be weeks before Zinni returns to the Middle East.
Powell also warned that if Arafat did not move against militants he would “slowly lose authority within the region.”
Asked if Arafat would survive if Palestinian terror continues, Powell replied, “I don’t know.”
He added that although Israel had declared Arafat irrelevant, the United States would still deal with Arafat as head of the Palestinian Authority.
But, Powell said, if Arafat fails to act decisively, “We will be examining all of our options of how we deal with him.”