Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat is the only Arab leader strategically committed to making war on Israel. His greatest disappointment is the Arab world’s failure to rally behind him – even the outwardly supportive Iraq’s Saddam Hussein remains enigmatic. Since Arafat is also the only Arab leader without a regular army, he fields a hodge-podge made up of his own presidential guard, the Palestinian police force, security service officers and Fatah and Tanzim militias in a vicious campaign of terrorism against Israelis. His tactic aims at provoking Israel into landing a mighty military blow resulting in a Palestinian massacre that will shock the Arab and Moslem masses into forcing their rulers to join the Palestinian war.
Another of his objectives is to undermine Israel’s political stability. He has already managed to shake Israeli self-confidence enough to bring down one government, that of Ehud Barak, although the rise of Ariel Sharon in his stead is not quite the outcome he looked for. To increasingly demoralize Israeli society, Arafat has also given free rein to the Jihad Islami and Hizballah militants and their suicide bombers.
His third strategic objective is to duplicate the Bosnia crisis of the early nineties when it drew an international force to Yugoslavia on the Albanian side. What he has wrought in fact is a West Bank-Gaza Strip replica of the eve of civil war situation reigning in Lebanon in the mid-70s; Palestinian hands are raised against their fellows and the confusion is such that only intelligence field agents can unravel understand the tangle of allegiance and commitment motivating the warring Palestinian gangs and factions.
In other words, the authority of Arafat’s governing bodies is breaking down gradually but surely.
That process was accelerated by Sharon’s broad military operation to fragment the territories under Palestinian control. Behind the cover-objective of fighting terrorism – an internationally acceptable goal – he ordered the Israeli army to dust off an existing game plan code-named “Bronze”, drafted by the high command for application in the event of a comprehensive Middle East war.
Under Operation Bronze, six Israel tank and armored infantry brigades were to move into PA areas and carve them up into 64 besieged pockets encircled with trenches or high earthworks, with ingress and egress tightly controlled by Israeli army checkpoints. These pockets were to be cut off in a general flare-up from Israel’s front lines and key points, like the Jordan Rift Valley and the through highway from the Jordanian frontier to Israel’s Mediterranean conurbations. They were also to be divided from Israeli Arab population centers to prevent the two sides linking up to fight against Israeli forces. Verbal expressions of Israeli Arab solidarity with the Palestinian cause exploded into anti-Israel riots last October and led to Israeli Arabs boycotting the February 6 election for prime minister.
The number 64 is not definitive, only a flexible guideline for Operation Bronze. The present count is between 25 and 28.
On March 2, without a word, the Israeli army began implementing Operation Bronze, moving from point to point for 9 days. On March 11, the Israeli army tightened the noose around the 250,000 inhabitants of Greater Ramallah and Bir Zeit and it was only then that the Palestinians raised an outcry
That Israeli operation, coming after a succession of terrorist strikes in its cities, effectively marks the onset of a full-scale local war. That is also the moment Arafat has been waiting for to regionalize the conflict. To achieve this end, the Palestinians must drastically accelerate the spiral of violence, carrying out increasingly brutal terrorist attacks, shooting heavy weapons including rockets against the Israeli armored forces besieging the pockets, sending armed Palestinians to invade Israeli settlements or villages on either side of the Green Line and taking hostages, or attacking on Israel strategic targets such as airports, power stations or waterworks.
Arafat’s plan was to reach the Arab summit to broad acclaim as the hero of the holy war against Israel, demonstratively supported on either side by Saddam Hussein on his first appearance outside Iraq in a decade, and Syrian president Assad, announcing the Hizballah had opened a second anti-Israel front from Lebanon.
This has not worked out. As the date for the summit draws near, Yasser Arafat finds himself cornered. He never imagined so much across-the-board opposition to the Palestinian uprising or finding himself with an empty war chest. The Arab world, the European Union, US donors and Israel are all holding back the flow of cash to the Palestinian Authority for as long as it is dedicated to intifada. The Arab oil powers refuse even to make good on the $1b they pledged at the last summit in Cairo and will only release funds for development, not combat – and only then under strict supervision. President Bush, impervious to repeated requests, refuses to set a date for receiving the Palestinian leader in the White House. Sharon’s blockades seriously hamstring his terrorists and create hardships for the populace, heightening internal dissidence and popular discontent.
In these sorry circumstances, Arafat may decide to stay away from the Arab summit from which he expects little and devote himself to his first and last course, that of exacerbating the blood-letting and punishing the Arab rulers through mob unrest in their own capitals.
That course would converge dangerously with an ambition held by his only strategic ally, Saddam Hussein, to destabilize the regimes that lined up with NATO in the Gulf War and the rulers who made peace with Israel. The most vulnerable is the Hashemite throne of Jordan, next door to Iraq. Iraqi forces could go in on the pretext of saving Abdullah II from the fury of his large Palestinian population – and never leave.