Arafat's Dance Of Death

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The attack itself was disturbing enough. As an Israeli bus approached Emmanuel, a Jewish settlement in the West Bank, a band of Palestinian guerrillas detonated two roadside bombs. When passengers fled the stricken vehicle, the militants gunned them down and flung grenades in their direction. Ten civilians were killed in the assault, and 30 were injured.

Then came the added horror. It was not just the usual suspect, the radical Islamic group Hamas, that took responsibility for the outrage. Also claiming a part was the Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, an underground militia associated with Yasser Arafat. That would be the same Yasser Arafat that Israel was supposed to count on to rein in Palestinian terrorists.

Hamas didn't want to share the credit, but the fact that the Martyrs Brigade implicated itself in the bus attack was the latest sign that Arafat's own putative loyalists are now participating in the mayhem. That development is one reason the government of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon last week officially cut contacts with Arafat, declaring him "irrelevant." Said Cabinet Minister Tzipi Livni: "It's no longer that the Palestinian Authority isn't doing enough. Some of the Authority people have become part of these terrorist organizations."

Hamas and groups associated with Arafat have developed increasingly close links since the collapse of the Camp David peace talks in the summer of 2000. After rejecting Israel's offer for a final settlement, Arafat returned home to encourage a new intifadeh, or uprising. Once the promise of a negotiated settlement with Israel faded, there was no longer a major ideological division between Arafat's secular nationalists and the Islamists, who reject any accommodation with Israel.

To facilitate the less lethal aspects of the intifadeh, such as political rallies and funerals for slain compatriots, the two factions formed a National and Islamic Committee in every Palestinian town. The committee includes members of Hamas and its spin-off, Islamic Jihad, as well as the various components of the Palestine Liberation Organization, including Arafat's party, Fatah. Contacts on this level helped foster similar ties on the military front. "Joint attacks," notes a senior official in Israeli military intelligence, "are not a marginal phenomenon lately." The links between these organizations, as well as between the Islamists and the official security forces of the Authority, have become so complex and active that the Shin Bet, the Israeli version of the FBI, has set up a sophisticated computer program to keep track of them all.

Arafat's duplicitous messages--publicly he talks about making peace with Israel; privately he's militant--have helped bring the two strands of Palestinian politics together. The Authority, notes a security official in the Gaza Strip, "has played a double game throughout the intifadeh." What's more, says an Israeli security official in the West Bank, with central command in the Authority deteriorating in recent months, many local security and militia leaders are unclear whether they are supposed to be initiating terrorist attacks, closing their eyes to other people's terrorist attacks or trying to prevent terrorist attacks. In that situation, these leaders often turn to personal relationships with local chieftains from other groups.

Salah Darwazeh provides a case in point. Before the intifadeh, Darwazeh, a Hamas bombmaker, got to know members of Arafat's Force 17 security unit when they guarded his cell at the Jeneid prison in the West Bank city of Nablus. When he was released, he paid them to watch over his bombmaking lab on Wadi Tuffah Street in Nablus, an arrangement that continued until Darwazeh was assassinated by Israel in July. Other examples of common effort:

--On Oct. 28, four Israeli women were gunned down at a crowded bus stop in the city of Hadera. The attack was claimed by Islamic Jihad, but the two men who carried it out were active members of the Palestinian police force.

--On Nov. 6, an Israeli army reservist, Captain Eyal Sela, was shot dead on a West Bank road by a gang that included one member from Fatah, one from Hamas and one from a communist group within the P.L.O. that has been quiet for years.

--On Nov. 27, two gunmen opened fire with Kalashnikovs on a crowd of people near the central bus station in the city of Afula, killing two young Israeli men. Fatah and Islamic Jihad shared responsibility.

--On Nov. 29, the same two groups took responsibility for the suicide bombing of a bus on its way from Nazareth to Hadera. Three Israelis died.

--On Dec. 1, two suicide bombers struck the busy Ben Yehuda pedestrian mall in downtown Jerusalem, killing 11 Israelis. One of the bombers was from Hamas; the other had just resigned from the Palestinian General Intelligence.

It's no coincidence that the number of joint attacks has grown at the same time Arafat's popularity and authority have sunk to new lows. Since the Authority has never allowed much room for internal dissent, the joint operations have become a new outlet through which to criticize and embarrass Arafat. "We in Fatah are the ones who shouldered the burden of the peace project," says a West Bank security official, citing the group's work in building Authority institutions. "But in spite of what we have suffered, Arafat doesn't listen to us."

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