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After a Weekend of Terror, Israeli Anger Focused on Arafat

December 5, 2001
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The past weekend’s deadly terror attacks have left most Israelis angrier than ever before, and most of that anger is directed at one man.

“The State of Israel opened an action against a man,” Alex Fishman wrote in the Israeli daily Yediot Achronot after Israel launched reprisal attacks Monday on the West Bank and Gaza Strip. “Not against an organization, not against an entity, not against an ideology. Against one man: Yasser Arafat. Our bin Laden.”

It is Yasser Arafat — not the Palestinians as a whole, or even the Palestinian Authority per se — who many Israelis see as the obstacle to stability in the region.

And the duel is almost a personal one between Sharon and Arafat, antagonists who have confronted each other on various battlefields in different countries over several decades, according to Israeli analysts.

“Have no doubt,” Fishman continues, “this whole operation is managed” on the Israeli side “by just one man: Ariel Sharon.”

For the average Israeli, Arafat has become everyone’s enemy and the root of all problems. He is the Nobel Peace Prize winner who pulled the wool over the world’s eyes.

Many Israelis believe Arafat never really intended to make peace, even when former Prime Minister Ehud Barak offered him virtually everything Arafat said he wanted from Israel, including an independent Palestinian state.

After eight years of a purported peace process, Yoel Marcus wrote in Ha’aretz, Arafat succeeded in proving that Israel’s “fanatic” right-wingers — who claimed all along that Arafat remained committed to the destruction of the Jewish state — were far more accurate than the left-wing dreamers who thought Arafat shared the Israeli vision of a “New Middle East” of peaceful coexistence.

“We need to get rid of” Arafat, said Hadass Cohen, who was sitting and reading a newspaper at a Jerusalem cafe. “He’s never been straight with us.”

For the media and commentators from left to right, Arafat has become everyone’s enemy, a terrorist in diplomatic costume.

In fact, even during the peace process, Arafat never once appeared in public in anything other than his military uniform — which some Israeli commentators consider a subtle means of showing his people his true intentions, even as he lauded the “peace of the brave.”

“Arafat has brought the Palestinian-Israeli dispute to a crossroads that could lead ‘Sharon’s Israel’ to try to engineer the P.A.’s collapse,” Marcus wrote. “Or, alternatively, to carry out a frontal attack on the terrorist organizations in the very heart of the areas under the P.A.’s jurisdiction.”

The wave of weekend terror attacks gave Sharon the opportunity to make his own moves, analysts agreed. The U.S. government has indicated that Israeli military action is permissible, as long as Sharon doesn’t destroy the Palestinian Authority.

Yet many Israelis are drawing analogies to the U.S. war on terror in Afghanistan, arguing that what is good policy for Washington — targeting not just the terrorists themselves, but also the regimes that harbor them — is also valid for Jerusalem.

“Sharon now has the license to pressure Arafat, to hold him accountable for terror,” said Martin Kramer, a senior fellow at the Moshe Dayan Center at Tel Aviv University. “Sharon wasn’t taken seriously when he first said, ‘You have your Osama, we have ours.’ But now he can Talibanize Arafat, showing that Arafat has an industrial line for suicide bombers unimpeded by the P.A.”

In the course of a 12-hour period from Saturday night through Sunday afternoon, three Palestinian suicide bombers killed at least 25 Israelis in Jerusalem and in Haifa.

“I have been reporting to you about many terror incidents over the last year, yet” these attacks “felt different,” said Ron Krumer, the director of external affairs for the Hadassah Medical Organization, whose two hospitals in Jerusalem dealt with many of the wounded. “I can’t explain it.”

The attacks were considered particularly grisly both for their method — in Jerusalem, bombers were stationed at both ends of the Ben Yehuda pedestrian mall, and a nearby car bomb was timed to hit emergency workers rushing to the scene — and their force.

Most of the injured were teen-agers, and the blast sent pieces of the nail-filled bombs flying into the youths’ brains, limbs, eyes and throats, according to doctors at the Hadassah-Hebrew University Medical Center.

“When you operate on one after another, you have to steel yourself against a terrible pessimism,” trauma surgeon Alon Pikarsky said. When I closed the eyes of one young patient, I thought, ‘There’s another life snuffed out so young, and for no reason.’ “

Sharon was in the United States at the time, preparing for a meeting with President Bush on the latest American peace initiative in the region.

When he got news of the terror attacks, Sharon moved up his meeting with Bush by a day and headed home early, backed by tacit support from the U.S. regarding any future military action.

“The U.S. created a diplomatic support network, but with the understanding that Israel is going to do what it needs to do,” said Gerald Steinberg, who heads the Interdisciplinary Program on Conflict Management and Negotiation at Bar-Ilan University.

Steinberg described the public mood as “stoic, determined, angry. They want to see some sort of resolution, not just continuously going through what seems to be an infinite cycle.”

So is Israel now at war with the Palestinians?

No, Kramer said.

“We’re one stage beyond where we were before the weekend,” he said, yet still short of an all-out war.

According to Steinberg, Israel might be at the beginning of a prolonged military action that could include house-to- house searches in Palestinian territory and more extensive responses than to previous waves of Palestinian terror.

Something, Israelis say, has to give after 14 months of a Palestinian terror offensive.

“It’s time this government took action,” said Avi Hareven, a taxi driver. “We’ve become sitting ducks.”

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