The Palestinian-Israel War Gains a French Dimension

The first winter rain bucketed down mixed with hailstones as two Jordanian helicopters carried the seriously ill Yasser Arafat out of Ramallah early Friday, October 29. Within an hour, he was out of the Middle East aboard a French presidential aircraft fitted out as an ambulance with life-support systems that whisked him from Amman to a French military hospital in Paris for urgent medical treatment.
The circumstances of his exit indicate that, despite the veteran Palestinian leader’s sinking health, waning popularity and a reputation tainted with rampant corruption, he remains a force capable of sustaining the war of terror he declared on Israel four years ago, although for three of those years he was confined to his Ramallah headquarters.
They also signal the onset of a new stage in that war and the entry of a new lead player: France.
Exactly ten years ago, the Palestinian leader made a triumphal entry from Tunisian exile to lead the Palestinian Authority created under the 1993 Oslo peace accords. He rode in on a pledge to honor the peace, a pledge he lost no time in violating.
A certain amount of jostling for position greeted the first hours after his departure. The first to step forward were the former and current Palestinian prime ministers Mahmoud Abbas and Ahmed Qureia. Abbas is Arafat’s Number 2 in the PLO executive; Qureia, the senior Palestinian Authority official. A third was Salim Zaanoun, head of the Palestinian Legislative Council. A fourth was the ambitious Mohammed Dahlan, former Gaza Strip strongman.
This foursome can do no more than try and keep things running pro tem until Arafat’s fate is settled one way or another. Without his seal of approval – which was not granted – its members’ standing is not very solid.
Biding their time are the real Palestinian heavyweights, together with the al Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades created by Arafat for the suicide campaign against Israel, the radical Hamas and the Jihad Islami. The latter two have already staked a claim to a share in the post-Arafat “unified national government.” The battle for the succession will not begin as long as the Palestinian leader is alive. Until then, president Jacques Chirac, an avowed friend of the “Palestinian struggle,” will be firmly by his side and likely to take a hand in the choices.
The rising men at this moment, according to debkafile‘s Palestinian sources, are Arafat’s closest advisers and his top terrorist masterminds: Hanni al-Hassan, Saher Habash, Azzam Muhammad, Nabil Abu Rodeina, Ramsi Roh and Force 17 commander Faisal Abu Serah. This group, together with extremist Farouk Kadoumi, the self-exiled deputy chairman of the Fatah executive, will remain in Paris as long as Arafat is confined to hospital. They will try run Palestinian Authority business from the French capital. Claiming they are relaying orders from Arafat, they will gradually erode the authority of the Abu Mazan-Abu Ala clique.
These candidates do not auger well for the hopes harbored by many Israelis of Arafat’s eclipse automatically opening the way for non-violent Palestinian peace negotiators to step forward – or even a downturn in terrorist attacks. Quite the contrary, the contest promises to jar the entire region and unleash fresh terrorist energy.
The high-security Percy military hospital in the Paris suburb of Clamart was chosen in a last minute switch from the Val-de-Grace medical center because of its specialization in blood disorders. Before his departure, Arafat’s physician Dr. Ashraf Kurdi, confirmed his blood platelet count was low.
From the moment that he was committed to hospital, the French agents watching over him will carefully select his visitors. Not all the important members of his escort will be admitted.Those with the best chance are his closest aide Abu Rodeina, private secretary Ramzi Roh, his financial adviser Mohammed Rashid and Azzam Ahmed, who was his contact-man with Iraq’s ex-ruler Saddam Hussein.
Arafat deliberately refrained from naming an heir with a view to running the PA from his hospital bed. But who will conduct the ongoing Palestinian war? Its initiator is in no shape for this kind of strain. By the time he was carried out of his Ramallah quarters, he was too frail to walk. The photographs showing him in a blue pajama suit and knitted hat beaming at his companions were carefully staged. The Palestinians, Israelis and French are all working on the premise that his health has deteriorated too far for recovery. But his protectors will certainly keep him “alive” as long as he breathes. Palestinian officials may travel to Paris, put up at smart hotels and report back home that Arafat is coming along well. But it will be hearsay. They will not be allowed to see him. Abu Rodeina will not doubt phone Ramallah and the Gaza Strip from time to time with “orders” from the boss which no Palestinian official will dare disobey as long as they are in the dark about his real condition. They will wait for a death certificate to prove he is not about to turn up and demand an accounting for their disobedience.
The current situation is therefore uncertain and extremely volatile. All that can be said for the moment is:
1. Israel may have had little choice, but it has lost points by relinquishing the limited intelligence control it maintained over Arafat’s actions in Ramallah and handing it over to France.
2. France is well seasoned in manipulating foreign political figures, often haven-seekers, to serve French diplomatic, military and intelligence interests. One example is Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini who lived in exile in a small town near Paris for most of the 1970s disseminating propaganda materials for inciting revolution against the Shah of Iran. In 1979, Khomeini landed in Tehran aboard a French plane and led the Islamic revolution that toppled the ruler and put an end to US-Israeli influence in Iran.
3. By taking charge of the symbol and inventor of the Palestinian national struggle, the French government has also taken a lead-position in European policymaking on Israel, the Palestinians and the conflict between them. Considering the Chirac government’s warm sympathy for the Arabs and the Palestinian cause and its friendly ties with Iran, Syria and the Hizballah, this is not exactly good news for Israel.
4. Since early 2002, the French President has consistently taken a collision course against President George W. Bush over his Middle East policies and posture, especially on Iraq and the Palestinians. Arafat in the care of the French government grants Chirac a new and sharp tool for hurting Israel’s interests and crossing the Washington that refused to do business with the discredited Palestinian leader.

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