The devout Muslim Yasser Arafat, who ignited the “al Aqsa Intifada” conflagration in September 2000, has developed a strong urge to attend Christmas Mass in Bethlehem. But he is in a cleft stick. To escape the Israeli siege holding him down in Ramallah, he must ask Israel for permission to cross over to a second blockaded Palestinian West Bank town, Bethlehem. The closure against Bethlehem will certainly be lifted for Christmas. Arafat’s fate is less certain. Israeli foreign minister Shimon Peres thinks he should be granted his wish. He argues that it is “religious” not political.
Sources in the Israeli prime minister’s office do not see what the Palestinian leader has done to deserve such consideration. He has yet to make the necessary arrests of Palestinian terrorists, including the assassins of the Israeli tourism minister Rehavam Zeevi. The Hamas “suspension” is far short of comprehensive – a view shared by the White House whose spokesman, Ari Fleischer, said the Hamas must cease all its terror operations everywhere – and not just inside Israel. He advised Arafat to do more.
But the Palestinian leader, in his call to halt “armed operations including suicide attacks” last Sunday, December 16, refrained from calling an end to the Intifada. He also spoke of Jerusalem as sacred to Muslims and Christians, “with its mosques and churches”. Jewish shrines were not mentioned; their Temple site, Western Wall, synagogues and many shrines pointedly ignored. Attending the internationally televised Christmas mass is intended to belabor that point.
There are two main reasons for the Palestinian leader to have swung the Hamas Islamic terrorists round to a partial suspension of operations: A. To put pressure on Israel to reciprocate by lifting the closure of Ramallah so that he can wriggle out of the stranglehold imposed on him by US President George W. Bush and Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon. Once in Bethlehem, he will be free and can move around at will. B. To show Arab leaders that America can be challenged; they don’t have to knuckle under to American dictates, least of all those laid down by Sharon.
The Bush administration has made its attitude to terror abundantly clear; terrorists will be destroyed. The message was addressed to such Middle East figures as Yasser Arafat, Syrian president Bashar Assad, Iraqi ruler Saddam Hussein, Lebanese Hizballah chief Hassan Nasrallah, Hamas keader Khaled Mashal, Popular Front Secretary Ahmed Saadat, Jihad Islami leader Ramadan Shelah, head of the Arab Liberation Front Abul Abbas and Ahmed Jibril, leader of the Popular Front-General Command. It is clear to them all that their own heads may soon be on the block. Since all these personalities and groups have personal or operational ties with Yasser Arafat, the Palestinian leader has determined to show them an example of how to outwit the Americans and succeed where Osama bin Laden, Mullah Omar and Ayman Zuweiri failed.
His determination is such that he was prepared to bend the Hamas to his will and force a partial suspension of suicide attacks “inside territory occupied since 1948” (Hamas can’t bring itself to say the word “Israel”) and mortar fire – although the Islamic terrorist group is both his operational right arm and key source of revenue through its world net of charitable societies. The US President’s order to freeze Hamas assets in the United States limits but does not stem the group’s cash flow.
The Hamas is perfectly willing to go along with Arafat’s ploy, even at the cost of bloody clashes between its followers and Palestinian police, which on Friday, December 21, cost six Palestinian lives. The group does not even mind one of its leading lights, Aziz Rantisi, being confined to phony house arrest.
Even the Hamas’s brother group, the Jihad Islami, is prepared to go through the motions of considering a halt to its suicide attacks, knowing its leaders in Beirut and Damascus will never sanction the move. It is no secret to either Islamic terror group that whatever self-restraint they promise, it will not be for long – only until Arafat is out of Ramallah. Then they can make up for lost time – first in violent assaults on Israeli civilians and troops in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, then a fresh round of suicide attacks and mortar fire inside Israel.
Arafat, if blamed, can always respond by asking what more he could have done; he made a hundred percent effort to quell the terror, bringing the Palestinians to the brink of civil war – but failed