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The Murder of Yasser Arafat: "Powerful" - The Times of London

Monday, 22 September 2003

Israelis lobby Bush on security fence

Threat to withhold loan guarantees leads to less aggressive plan

Matthew Kalman, Chronicle Foreign Service

SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLE
Monday, September 22, 2003
Page A - 1

Abu Dis, West Bank -- Two of Israel's most senior civil servants will try to persuade the Bush administration today to drop its objections to the 225-mile, $1 billion security fence Israel is building to stop suicide bombers entering from the West Bank.
The White House has threatened to withhold part of the $9 billion in loan guarantees to Israel to protest the route of the fence, which is planned to cut deep into Palestinian territory in the West Bank in order to protect Israeli settlements.
In Washington today, Dov Weisglass, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's Cabinet secretary, and Defense Minister Amos Yaron will present National security adviser Condoleezza Rice with a new plan for the barrier in an effort to deflect U.S. criticism. They will propose that instead of including the large settlements of Ariel near Nablus and Ma'aleh Adumim east of Jerusalem, the barrier will be left unbuilt in those areas.
The compromise has enraged supporters of the fence in Israel, but Sharon hopes it will avoid a head-on collision with the Bush administration.
The spat with Washington is the latest chapter in the tortured history of the project, which was first proposed by dovish Prime Minister Ehud Barak in the 2001 election campaign.
Leftist Israelis support the fence -- but only if it follows the invisible "Green Line" marking Israel's 1967 border with the West Bank, thus removing it as an obstacle to an eventual peace with the Palestinians.
RIGHTISTS FEAR DE FACTO BORDER
Rightists -- who might be expected to be in favor of the project, since it would create further "facts on the ground" -- instead fear that the fence will become a de facto final border, hastening the creation of a Palestinian state and causing the evacuation of Jewish settlements beyond the barrier's reach.
Police and security officials strongly support the project. Their arguments,
underscored by terror attacks that have killed hundreds of Israelis, persuaded Sharon and his center-right allies to begin construction.
Gerald Steinberg, professor of political science at Bar-Ilan University, says the experience of nearby Cyprus, divided after a bitter war between Turkey and Greece, bolsters the theory behind the security fence.
"The violence subsided significantly after the Turkish authorities turned the Green Line there into a dividing wall, passing along the entire length of Cyprus," he said. "The evidence clearly demonstrates that almost 30 years of physical separation allowed tempers to cool, as the emotional amplifiers of the conflict subsided."
Critics, however, say that Sharon is moving too slowly, allowing foreign opposition to crystallize, and that the proposed course of the fence has strayed too far from the Green Line into Palestinian territory.
"They should have built the fence long ago, but it was held up because the settlers were opposed," said Haim Ramon, a prominent Labor Party politician. "The fence has been delayed for more than a year because the government is trying to route it not according to security needs but the needs of the settlers."
'APARTHEID WALL'
Palestinians vehemently oppose construction of what they dub the "Apartheid Wall," accusing Israel of grabbing large swathes of Palestinian land. They argue the barrier cuts them off from their own fields and orchards and denies them freedom of movement inside the West Bank and the chance to find work inside Israel.
"We are being put into a series of cages," said Sari Nusseibeh, the president of Al-Quds University, as he surveyed the bulldozers looming over a hill near his office last week.
The proposed route of the fence runs through the village of Abu Dis east of Jerusalem, cutting straight through the university and slicing off a playing field from the administration buildings.
Amnesty International has condemned the barrier as a form of "collective punishment" that "permanently restricts the free movement of Palestinians."
The clamor for erection of a continuous border fence grew as terrorist attacks reached a bloody peak in spring 2002.
"There is a security fence between the Gaza Strip and Israel, and though many have tried, not a single terrorist has been successful in entering Israel from Gaza," argues Maj. Gen. Uzi Dayan, a former national security adviser to Sharon who now heads a public committee lobbying for the fence. "All of the terrorists . . . come from areas within the West Bank, as there is no fence or barrier between the West Bank and the major population centers in Israel."
Economists say the fence will pay off in ways other than basic safety.
TERROR ATTACKS HURT ECONOMY
Avi Ben-Bassat, an economics professor at the Hebrew University who is a former director-general of the Finance Ministry, said the economy had been seriously hurt by the terror attacks.
Israel's gross domestic product grew by more than 4 percent annually from 1997 to 2000 but has been falling ever since the intifada began in September 2000. The worldwide recession is largely to blame, but Ben-Bassat attributes one quarter of the decline to terrorism and its associated costs.
Ben-Bassat said the fence would enable Israel to cut military expenditures, which now account for a huge 9.5 percent of the nation's gross domestic product.
"The benefits are enormous," he said. "It will cost about $1 billion, or 1 percent of GDP, but it will add $6 billion to GDP over the next two years. It's very expensive to protect the border now, and they can't do it anyway."
In August 2002, bulldozers broke ground on the first section of the fence outside the northern West Bank city of Jenin, aiming to cut off a favored cross-country route used by suicide bombers into nearby Israeli cities.
The project is modeled on the international border fence with Jordan, which runs largely along the Jordan River. It comprises a barbed wire and concrete barrier delineating an exclusion zone about 10 meters wide, a ditch to stop vehicles, an electrified, 3-meter-high fence fitted with sensors, a dirt road examined daily for footprints, a patrol road fitted with further sensors and a final barbed-wire fence on the other side.
It is planned to run about 200 miles around the West Bank, encircling some Israeli settlements but excluding others. But the final route of the fence, including sensitive areas around Jerusalem, has not been decided.
Israel Harel, a leading ideologue of the settler movement, said the "panic for a fence" had changed the face of Israeli politics.
"More than presenting an insurmountable obstacle that will prevent the infiltration of terrorists, the separation fence will constitute the border," he said. "The main political powers in Israel have adopted a consensus: Since there is no possibility of reaching an agreement (with the Palestinians) in the foreseeable future, there must be a unilateral separation."
Pragmatic rightists close to Sharon also worry about drawing a line that leaves some settlements unprotected. Likud party chief whip Gideon Sa'ar said that routing of the fence along the Green Line, as proposed by Washington, would be "the biggest prize of all for Yasser Arafat."
©2003 San Francisco Chronicle
URL: http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?file=/c/a/2003/09/22/MN24064.DTL

Friday, 12 September 2003

Israel decides to uproot Arafat

Sharon's Cabinet gives go-ahead for security services to 'remove' Palestinian chief

SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLE
Friday, September 12, 2003

Matthew Kalman, Chronicle Foreign Service

Jerusalem -- The Israeli government threatened Thursday to "remove" Yasser Arafat, saying he was sabotaging the peace process, and gave its security services a green light to move against the Palestinian leader "in a manner, and at a time, of its choosing."

Thousands of Palestinians rushed to Arafat's compound in Ramallah to protect their leader, fearing Israel would expel or even kill him, but most analysts doubted that Israel would defy U.S. wishes and take any immediate action against Arafat.

The decision by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's security Cabinet came in the shadow of a pair of suicide bombings Tuesday in which 15 Israelis were killed and dozens wounded. The bloodshed, coming less than a month after 22 people died in a suicide bomb attack on a Jerusalem bus, has brought Israeli anger at Arafat to the boiling point.

The 13-member security body said events of recent days had "proven again that Yasser Arafat is a complete obstacle to any process of reconciliation between Israel and the Palestinians" and added that "Israel will work to remove this obstacle." The statement effectively gives Sharon and Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz blanket approval to move against Arafat without seeking further Cabinet approval.

A majority of the right-wing ministers attending the emergency meeting supported the expulsion of Arafat, according to Israeli television reports, and some even called for his death. But the Cabinet put off any immediate action to give Palestinian Prime Minister-designate Ahmed Qureia a last chance to clamp down on militants and to placate the United States, which opposes any move to send Arafat into exile.

"The government needed to say something about Arafat to satisfy strong domestic political pressures," said Professor Gerald Steinberg of the Begin- Sadat Center for Strategic Studies at Bar-Ilan University. But he cautioned that "exiling Arafat clearly has a big downside because he will be able to rally support abroad and continue directing the traffic."

"I think the government will decide to keep him here incommunicado where no one will be allowed to see him," he added, "so he will disappear as a factor, as an influence in the process."

In Washington, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said, "We think it would not be helpful to expel him because it would just give him another stage to play on." Israeli media said U.S. officials had called Sharon to underscore the point.

The pressure to do more is intense, however. At least four Cabinet ministers and one of the country's daily newspapers called for Arafat's assassination.

"He is a murderer, the leader of a murderous terrorist gang," said Education Minister Limor Livnat, comparing Arafat to a string of terrorists, including Hamas spiritual leader Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, who was targeted in an Israeli assassination bid last Saturday. "There is no difference between bin Laden, Saddam Hussein, Sheikh Yassin and Arafat."

An editorial in the Jerusalem Post urged Israel to "kill as many of the Hamas and Islamic Jihad leaders as possible, as quickly as possible, while minimizing collateral damage." The newspaper added: "And we must kill Yasser Arafat, because the world leaves us no alternative."

However, Steinberg dismissed the notion that Israel would kill the Palestinian leader, saying the political cost would be too high. Instead, he predicted that the singling out of Arafat was a signal that Israel sought to replace the Palestinian Authority government with another more to its liking.

Palestinian analyst Khaled Abu Toameh said Arafat's supporters were convinced their leader was now under physical threat.

"It's nothing but a warning, but the Palestinians clearly take it very seriously," he said. "They genuinely believe that Sharon is determined this time to get rid of their leader. Many think it could happen tonight -- that's why they came (out) in the hundreds. This will only boost Arafat's popularity in the Palestinian street."

Abu Toameh agreed that removing Arafat effectively would mean the end of the Palestinian Authority. "It's impossible to see how the Palestinian Authority can function without Arafat," he said. "He makes all the important decisions personally."

Qureia, the incoming prime minister, called on the international community to intervene. "It is an unwise decision," he said. "It will re-escalate the situation (and) put all efforts in danger. "

The wording of the Cabinet decision, like the decision by the government to declare Arafat "irrelevant" in December 2001, left observers confused about what, if anything, will happen next. Israeli politicians have a long tradition of appeasing critics by promising to take actions that are not carried out, and Sharon himself came to power three years ago on a promise to end the intifada.

However, the Cabinet gave a hint of its direction by asking the army to prepare and present plans for Arafat's "removal," leaving open the question of whether that meant exile, assassination or simply intensifying his isolation in his battered Mukataah headquarters in Ramallah, where he has been confined by Israeli sieges and threats for nearly two years.

Gaby Ashkenazi, a commander of Israeli forces in the West Bank, said the army had "several plans ready and waiting to go" with regard to Arafat. "One of them is labeled 'Arrest of Arafat and his removal from the Mukataah' ," said Ashkenazi.

The Cabinet also approved a call-up of reserves, which will take several weeks, indicating that Israel is preparing for a major military operation.

Arafat himself appeared defiant before the crowd that flocked to his compound, chanting: "With our blood, with our souls we will redeem you."

Flashing his trademark double-handed V-for-victory sign and a huge smile, Arafat addressed the crowd through a bullhorn, exhorting them to sacrifice "martyrs by the millions" on the road to Jerusalem -- the kind of language Israel considers an encouragement to launch more suicide bombings.

"They can kill me with bombs, but they can't deport me," Arafat told the crowd. "I won't leave Ramallah."

Israeli opposition leader Shimon Peres called the Cabinet move "a terrible mistake," and an opinion poll on Israel Radio showed only 38 percent of Israelis favor forcing Arafat out of the country.

Wednesday, 10 September 2003

FIRST PERSON: Blood, emotions spill over in bombing

Suicide attack at cafe turns tears into anger

SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLE
Wednesday, September 10, 2003

Matthew Kalman, Chronicle Foreign Service

Jerusalem -- 11:20 p.m. Tuesday. I had just sat down to check my e-mails before going to bed when a huge blast like a thunderclap nearly knocked me out of my chair.

Looking out the window, I could see white smoke billowing into the dark sky over the rooftops from Emek Refaim, a strip of fashionable cafes and restaurants less than 200 yards behind my house. The night was silent, broken only by a lone car alarm triggered by the shock waves.

I shot out of my apartment and ran toward the smoke, joining a two-way stream of traffic. Running with me were people pulling on medics' vests, as well as photographers and other reporters. Walking slowly in the other direction, or simply standing, visibly shaken and often sobbing quietly, were the shocked bystanders who had witnessed the attack.

A minute later, as I turned the corner into Emek Refaim -- "The Valley of the Ghosts" -- I took in a scene from hell: Smoke curled up from the street and people lay all around, groaning and crying. Ambulances and police cars raced past me, sirens wailing, and juddered to a halt next to Cafe Hillel, a popular meeting place that opened only a few months ago.

It was one of my favorite cafes -- a lively spot where young people in their 20s and 30s gathered to eat, drink coffee and talk animatedly over the loud background music. Now the cafe was silent, a pit of blackness amid the flashing lights of ambulances and police cars. As I drew nearer, I saw its windows had been blown to bits. Strewn around the street were lifeless bodies and what looked like pieces of still warm human flesh.

Dozens of police and medics descended on the scene within moments, and the night filled with sounds. Police officers screamed through bullhorns, telling the gathering crowds to stay back in case there was another bomb. Medics shouted into walkie-talkies, directing ambulances and helping to evacuate the wounded.

I saw at least a dozen injured people hurried away on stretchers, their blood spilling onto the orange blankets of the gurneys. Girls were in tears, and survivors of the attack were trying to contact friends and relatives on cell phones to tell them they were OK, but the network had crashed, leaving scores of people talking desperately into thin air.

Several youths started arguing with police who were trying to clear the scene.

"Where are you going?" the officer asked one of them.

"I want to find some Arabs to beat up," he said.

Arriving home, I found my 13-year-old son and 15-year-old daughter in tears, shaking. Another night in Jerusalem.

Israel's anti-terror policies force retaliations, critics say

NEWS ANALYSIS

SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLE
Wednesday, September 10, 2003

Matthew Kalman, Chronicle Foreign Service

Jerusalem -- The two rapid-fire suicide bomb attacks that rocked this nation Tuesday -- just days after Israel attempted to assassinate the top Hamas leaders as they sat down to lunch in Gaza -- have revived questions about Israel's campaign to quash Palestinian terrorism.

Critics argue that Israeli attacks such as the bombing Saturday that narrowly missed killing Hamas spiritual leader Sheikh Ahmed Yassin underscore Israel's impotence in the face of Palestinian resistance and only provoke retaliatory attacks. But Israeli policymakers say the Palestinians' refusal to take responsibility for securing areas under their control has forced them to target the terrorists themselves and their masterminds.

In the past three weeks, since a suicide bomber killed 22 people in Jerusalem on Aug. 19, Israel has killed a dozen Hamas leaders. If Saturday's raid had succeeded, then it would have claimed the life of Yassin and at least 10 others, including the group's chief bombmaker, Mohammed Deif.

Afterward, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon warned Hamas leaders that they were "marked for death," and Hamas threatened unprecedented revenge, saying Israel had "opened the gates of hell" with its attempt to assassinate Yassin.

The relentless attacks are part of a campaign to eliminate -- or at least intimidate -- the militants.

"Israel's purpose is to reconstruct deterrence on the terrorist front as well as we have managed to maintain it on the conventional (military) front for the past 30 years," said Eran Lerman, a former military intelligence colonel who is Jerusalem director of the American Jewish Committee. But Lerman cautioned that the strategy must be carried out carefully.

"Deterrence is never an isolated concept -- it's not just a matter of how much pain you can inflict on the other guy," he said. "If you do it in an illegitimate way, you lose diplomatically, and the other guy has scored on the strategic level."

DIFFERENT STRATEGIES USED

Faced with the constant threat of terror attacks, Israeli policy has gone through several distinct phases since the outbreak of the intifada three years ago.

At first, Israel used diplomatic and financial pressure to try to persuade Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat to crack down on the militants.

When this failed, Israel began targeting suspects defined as "ticking bombs" -- people suspected of preparing an imminent attack on Israelis -- and assassinating them in extrajudicial killings. At the same time, it stepped up military pressure against the Palestinian Authority, bombing their buildings and isolating Arafat. But that tactic only seemed to inflame the intifada.

Now, Israel is going after the leadership of terrorist groups -- and it appears to know where to find them.

In its anti-terror campaign, Israel draws on a vast array of sophisticated and frequently top-secret devices, but insiders say the most-potent tool in the Israeli armory is the stool pigeon.

"Palestinians snitch on one another habitually, to the point that Israel will eventually know where all of these leaders are," said Dr. Michael Oren, a former Israeli army officer in the West Bank, Gaza and Lebanon, and author of the highly acclaimed history book "Six Days of War."

Israeli officials say their first priority is defensive -- to prevent terror attacks wherever possible.

"We have invested a lot of our capability in following the preparation of terror attacks against Israel," said Edad Shavit, a senior analyst in Israeli military intelligence.

ISRAEL UNDETERRED

As Tuesday's suicide bombings illustrate, even this aggressive campaign has failed to provide insurance against terror attacks. But Israeli authorities say they are determined to proceed and are making progress in pinpointing high- level targets within the militant groups.

Since the reoccupation of the West Bank last year, Israeli intelligence officials have been working furiously to rebuild the information networks they neglected during the years after the 1993 Oslo peace pact.

"The quality of 'humint' (a military term for human intelligence) flowing to Israel has been growing remarkably, and it's not just because of money," said Lerman. "There is a sense that Israel is serious -- and serious about protecting its sources. There are also elements in Palestinian society who are sick and tired of seeing what these people are doing and where they are dragging the rest of their own people."

In the vanguard of Israel's war on terrorists are the mistaravim, or "secret Arabs" -- Israelis who look and sound like Palestinians -- who infiltrate target areas and mingle with the local population.

Israel also taps phones and e-mails, deploys highly sensitive listening devices and launches unmanned, silent drones equipped with state-of-the-art video and photographic equipment.

Once the intelligence is in hand, Israelis can deploy an impressive array of deadly material, from laser-guided missiles to sniper rifles equipped with liquid hydrogen-operated night vision equipment able to hit a target more than a mile away in complete darkness.

"The Israel Air Force's strike techniques for carrying out 'targeted killings' appear to have been refined successfully, so that far fewer innocent bystanders are hurt," said political analyst and former Mossad agent Yossi Alpher.

Indeed, the Israeli army says that one of the reasons the attack on Yassin failed was that it used a relatively small 550-pound laser-guided bomb in order to minimize civilian casualties.

But Alpher has deep misgivings about where this campaign is leading.

"The trouble is that Prime Minister Sharon is now liable to conclude that his best option is to fully reoccupy the Gaza Strip in order to eliminate Hamas," Alpher told an online forum of American Peace Now, adding that without a viable political solution, "this is a recipe for yet further deterioration of the situation."

That view is shared by Gen. Shlomo Gazit, a former head of Israeli military intelligence.

"The Palestinians are using their weakness in the balance of power in their own favor," said Gazit. "Withdrawal from the West Bank and Gaza Strip is the only act that can save Israel from self-destruction. If the army does not change its military doctrine, we are doomed."

Sunday, 7 September 2003

Mideast peace plan in tatters

Israel bombs Hamas luncheon; Abbas steps down

SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLE
Sunday, September 7, 2003

Matthew Kalman, Chronicle Foreign Service

Jerusalem -- The Israeli military bombed a Gaza City apartment on Saturday in a failed attempt to assassinate the entire Hamas leadership just hours after Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas resigned, sending prospects for peace in the Middle East plunging to new lows.

The resignation of Abbas after just 100 days in office -- the result of a power struggle with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat -- will likely freeze the U.S. peace initiative known as the road map. Israel and the United States both refuse to deal with Arafat.

The Israeli bombing slightly wounded Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, Hamas' spiritual leader, and 14 other people. The 550-pound bomb was launched during a lunch meeting of the Hamas political and military leadership.

The group included two men who had already survived rocket assassination attempts -- Abdel Aziz Rantisi and terror mastermind Mohammed Deif. Yassin, a frail, 68-year-old, managed to flee the building as the jets approached.

A senior Israeli security official told the New York Times that the attack failed because the Israeli Air Force used a "relatively small bomb" to minimize civilian casualties.

Rantisi, who was in the building when it was hit, said his followers would "open the gates of hell" with a new suicide-bomb campaign against Israeli civilians.

Israeli security chiefs braced for more suicide bombings, ordering hundreds of extra police and soldiers onto the streets late Saturday. Security checks were stepped up at shopping malls, movie theaters and other public places.

Hamas was also stung by a decision on Saturday by European foreign ministers to outlaw its political wing as a terrorist organization. Previously, only its military wing had earned that designation.

The Palestinian political structure is struggling with a power vacuum that makes statehood -- a major tenet of the road map -- even more remote. While Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat spoke of reviving the peace plan, observers said U.S. policy was in tatters and would have to be rewritten.

"Abbas is the victim of what many Palestinians see as a botched attempt by Israel and the U.S. to sideline their elected leader," said Palestinian analyst Khaled Abu Toameh. "The writing was on the wall from the very beginning.

U.S. UNDERESTIMATED ARAFAT

"It was clear that Arafat -- who has never agreed to share power with any Palestinian -- would do his utmost to undermine Abbas and bring about his downfall. But the Americans seemed to underestimate Arafat and refused to see the clear messages emanating from the rubble of Arafat's compound in Ramallah."

"Arafat has only one choice for leader: himself," Abu Toameh said. "Arafat has won another battle, but the Palestinian people have undoubtedly lost."

The Palestinian president has two weeks in which to name a new prime minister, but there are few obvious candidates.

Palestinian Legislative Council Speaker Ahmed Qureia is the only veteran leader still in the frame, but he says he does not want the job. Finance Minister Salam Fayad, a political ingenue, has apparently ruled himself out. Another possibility is businessman Monib al-Masri, an Arafat loyalist whose appointment was blocked by Arafat's Fatah movement earlier this year.

There was also speculation that Arafat would ask Abbas to resume his post.

While Palestinian politicians are tied up choosing their new Cabinet, they will be unable to make any progress on the security front, leaving the way open for Hamas to renew its bombing campaign in Israel's streets. Any rise in terrorism will likely trigger a draconian Israeli response, perhaps including widespread assassinations of Hamas and Islamic Jihad officials and a possible invasion of the Gaza Strip.

Right-wing Israeli ministers are also calling for the expulsion of Arafat, which could unleash a wave of popular Palestinian protest, leading in turn to a renewed Israeli military crackdown on the West Bank.

An Israeli government statement issued on Saturday night described the resignation of Abbas as "an internal Palestinian matter," but added, "Israel will not countenance a situation in which control of the Palestinian leadership reverts back to Yasser Arafat or someone who does his bidding."

WHITE HOUSE PRAISES ABBAS

And taking a swipe at Arafat, the White House issued a statement that Abbas' appointment as prime minister was a milestone "in the development of new institutions to serve all the people, not just a corrupt few tainted by terror."

Palestinian officials say that only strong international pressure will save them from tough Israeli measures. "We urge the international community to have the Israeli government refrain from exploiting the internal Palestinian situation," said Erekat.

Saturday's dramatic events unfolded in rapid succession, shifting from Ramallah, to Europe, back to Gaza and then to Ramallah again.

In the morning, a courier delivered Abbas' resignation letter to Arafat at his battered Mukata headquarters in Ramallah. Abbas then went to the Palestinian Legislative Council and addressed legislators for the second time in 72 hours, explaining his reasons for resigning. He blamed Israel, the Arab media and Arafat himself for the failure of his government, which he said had been brought down by "harsh and dangerous domestic incitement."

Leaflets and graffiti appearing in Ramallah since Thursday have denounced Abbas, also known as Abu Mazen, and his security chief Mohammed Dahlan as "Zionist collaborators" and "CIA agents."

"The events of the past few days left a scar on Abu Mazen," said Kadoura Farres, a legislator and Fatah leader who mediated between Arafat and Abbas in recent weeks. "Abu Mazen is not built to take such a thing."

Then came news of the decision by European foreign ministers to outlaw Hamas, including a freeze on assets and a ban on any diplomatic contacts with the group. The Bush administration and Israel had been pushing strongly for such a ban, and the French surprised observers by agreeing.

In Gaza, meanwhile, Hamas leaders meeting at the apartment of Marwan Abu Ras, a university lecturer and senior Hamas official, were sitting down to lunch when they heard Israeli jet fighters overhead.

Israel has killed a dozen other Hamas leaders in the past three weeks in response to a Hamas suicide bomber who killed 22 people aboard a Jerusalem bus on Aug. 19.

Friday, 5 September 2003

Abbas tells parliament: Back me or sack me

Palestinian prime minister talks tough to critics

SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLE
Friday, September 5, 2003

Matthew Kalman, Chronicle Foreign Service

Ramallah, West Bank -- Embattled Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas, locked in a power struggle with Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat and facing criticism over his failure to make good on promises of peace, delivered a veiled ultimatum to his disgruntled parliament Thursday: Support me or dismiss me.

"You either provide the resources of power and support those things, or you take it back," said Abbas, who was appointed to a shaky power-sharing position with Arafat after intense pressure from Washington and the European Union.

In an address marking the end of his first 100 days as premier, Abbas faced down his critics, but his hold on power appeared fragile.

Parliament scheduled a closed-door meeting for Saturday to discuss his speech and decide whether to move to a vote of confidence. Lawmakers said privately they hoped a compromise could avert such a showdown, which would throw U.S. plans for Middle East peace into disarray.

Abbas and Arafat have clashed repeatedly over the continuation of the armed struggle against Israel, the appointment of cabinet ministers, negotiations with Israel and, most recently, control of the security forces.

Abbas wants more control over the security forces in order to curb attacks against Israelis by Palestinian militants, but Arafat appears reluctant to cede any real power to his premier.

Even as Abbas made his way Thursday to the Palestinian Legislative Council in Ramallah, black-hooded members of Arafat's Al Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades ran amok outside, spray-painting insults against Abbas on the walls of the council building. Protesters carrying Arafat placards beat on a door to the building with a hatchet and clubs, chanting that they would defend their leader "with blood and fire." Minutes before, the demonstrators had been seen emerging from Arafat's office across town.

Abbas had hinted last week, when he called for a Legislative Council meeting, that he might resign if he did not receive more backing from parliament, and mediators from all sides worked frantically behind the scenes to avoid a public clash at Thursday's meeting.

Sensing a standoff, Israel issued a statement on Sunday saying it would "not negotiate with a new government formed under the instructions and influence of Arafat."

And Palestinian legislator Hatem Abdel Khader said several of his colleagues had received calls from U.S. and European officials advising them to support Abbas. "They told my colleagues this was advice, not an order, but we reject this outside interference in our Palestinian affairs," he said.

In his speech, Abbas only hinted at his conflict with Arafat. "Without a legitimate force in the hands of one authority . . . we will not advance one step on the political track," he said, in a reference to the U.S.-backed road map, which foresees Palestinian statehood by 2005.

But Arafat has outmaneuvered Abbas on several fronts. Earlier Thursday, Abbas' position as chief negotiator with Israel was undermined by the appointment of veteran Arafat loyalist Saeb Erekat to the cabinet with the title of minister for negotiations.

And under a plan to address the confrontation over security forces, Abbas' security chief, Mohammed Dahlan, is likely to be usurped by a Palestinian national security council that would give greater control to Arafat.

In public, Abbas remained supportive of Arafat, describing him Thursday as the "constitutional leader and historic leader" of the Palestinians. He called on Israel to lift its blockade of Arafat's headquarters, saying, "I believe that the siege of President Arafat is hurting our national dignity."

Legislators said that during his first 100 days in office, Abbas, who is known as Abu Mazen, had failed to deliver on many of his promises, but most put the blame on Israel.

"If Abu Mazen fails, he will fail because of the Israeli government," said former Palestinian cabinet minister Ziad Abu Zayyad. "He did a few positive things, but I'm worried because the Israelis did not give him enough time to do what he was planning to do and what he wanted to do."

Abbas portrayed a unilateral cease-fire, declared by the armed groups June 29, as his main achievement so far. He accused Israel of sabotaging the truce with "provocations," such as the arrests of militants, and of evading its obligations under the peace plan.

The truce was called off after an Aug. 19 suicide bombing in Jerusalem that killed 21 people and Israel's killing two days later of Hamas leader Ismail Abu Shanab.

The Bush administration and Israel have been pressing to sideline or even oust Arafat, but he remains popular -- perhaps more so since Washington has embraced Abbas.

"Everybody is still supporting Arafat, and (they) see Arafat as the first national leader of the Palestinian people," said Abu Zayyad. "Arafat will never be irrelevant, I can assure you."

Mark Heller of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University said Arafat had "undermined Abbas and sabotaged him in almost every conceivable way."

"Arafat is extremely jealous about his power and is unwilling to share it with anyone unless his back is up against a wall, which is, to a large extent, what has happened in the last few months as a result of foreign pressure, especially from the United States," Heller said.

Dr. Nabil Kukali, director of the Palestinian Center for Public Opinion, said he was confident Abbas and Arafat would patch up their differences.

"The Palestinians are tired of Israeli occupation, and they are not ready for conflict between their leaders," Kukali said. "The Palestinian leaders understand that, and they will solve their own problems."

But Professor Sari Nusseibeh, president of Al-Quds University and a former Arafat-appointed PLO representative in Jerusalem, warned that the continuing rivalry between the two men could prove fatal for both.

"A continued struggle between them not only will lead to the downfall of the one," said Nusseibeh. "I believe that the downfall of the one is going to lead to the downfall of the other.

"This is a lose-lose situation for both of them. Neither of them should think that this is a struggle in which only one of them will survive, and the Palestinian people will be left with a much worse position at the end of it."