JERUSALEM (Nov. 7)
Yasser Arafat may be on the verge of death in a French hospital, but back home the temporary Palestinian leadership is breathing new life into prospects of peace with Israel. Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Ahmed Qurei and his predecessor, Mahmoud Abbas, declared a police crackdown on the chaos in the West Bank and Gaza Strip on Sunday.
“This goes into effect immediately,” said Palestinian Cabinet minister Saeb Erekat.
The initiative was billed as a move to restore law and order after recent clashes between Arafat loyalists and a new generation of Fatah members.
It also included a Palestinian Authority request that terror factions halt attacks on Israel proper, a move the groups were considering and were expected to accept.
Israeli officials, who has braced for a potentially catastrophic succession struggle in the West Bank and Gaza since Arafat was flown to Paris with a severe stomach complaint on Oct. 29, expressed cautious encouragement.
“There are indications that” the Palestinian Authority is “trying to close ranks and stop the Hamas terrorism, but there is no way of knowing if this will succeed,” Israeli Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz told the Israeli Cabinet. “We believe Hamas and other terror groups will answer the Palestinian Authority’s call for violence to be curbed.”
Israel still insists that the Palestinian Authority disarm Hamas and other terrorists group in accordance with the U.S.-backed peace “road map.”
That need was underscored over the weekend by the death of an Israeli soldier in a “friendly fire” incident as his unit clashed with Palestinian gunmen in the West Bank town of Tulkarm. In a separate incident in nearby Jenin, Israeli commandos killed four Al-Aksa Brigade terrorists.
But in Jerusalem there is a growing conviction that, with Arafat gone, the extremists could lay down their arms in exchange for a place in a new, broad Palestinian government. On Saturday, Qurei and his security chiefs held a rare conference with Hamas, Islamic Jihad and the Al-Aksa Brigade at which the factions requested a power-sharing role.
The Palestinian Authority, wary of alienating Israel and the United States by closing ranks with terrorist groups, was circumspect. “We are talking about unity in all forms and aspects,” Qurei told reporters when asked about the talks in Gaza.
Israel, meanwhile, is keen to avoid any appearance of meddling in the future of the Palestinian Authority and offered to ease closures in the West Bank and Gaza so that Palestinian security forces can restore order.
Mofaz also told the Cabinet that Israeli security forces were prepared to facilitate Arafat’s burial in Gaza should his condition — recent reports indicate he is suffering liver failure, although several other ailments have also been suggested — prove fatal.
Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has ruled out the Palestinian Authority’s request to lay Arafat to rest in Jerusalem, but some Palestinian officials discreetly agree with the choice of Gaza — the Palestinian leader’s father is already buried there, in the Khan Younis Martyrs Cemetery.
Arafat’s wife, Suha, has reportedly requested that he be kept on a life-support system indefinitely — or at least until she can wrap up his will to her satisfaction. The delay has increased tension in the Palestinian ranks. But according to Palestinian sources, the patience of the comatose Palestinian leader’s French hosts may be wearing thin.
Qurei and Abbas were expected to fly to Paris on Monday for a final consultation with Suha Arafat on whether her husband should be declared dead. Another option, according to sources, is to fly Yasser Arafat out to Cairo, where his demise would segue with a pan-Arab state funeral. From there, it is but a short flight to Gaza.