Why Sharon May Outwit Arafat

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A Palestinian stone-thrower stands in front of Israeli jeeps in Ramallah

TIME.com: On the one hand Israel has Ramallah in a stranglehold; on the other hand it's lifting the blockade on a number of West Bank cities and talking of allowing Palestinian workers back into Israel. What's Ariel Sharon's game?

Jamil Hamad: What Sharon is doing is repeating what he did in Gaza many years ago when he was the Israeli commander there. He adopted the policy of making life for ordinary Palestinians easier, but at the same time giving the hard-liners and militants a hell of a time, trying to isolate them in the Palestinian population.

So now we see that Sharon has instructed the army to lift the closure of Tulkarm, Hebron, Bethlehem and Qalqilya, and they're saying they're going to open the borders and allow Palestinians to go back to work in Israel.

They're saying they're keeping Ramallah under siege because they have information that a terrorist cell is trying to send a car full of explosives to Israel, and that they'll maintain the siege until they capture this cell. Sharon doesn't believe in collective punishment, but he wants to send a message that he'll take a tough line against armed people. He wants to turn Palestinian public opinion against those who are shooting at Israel.

Is he succeeding?

Let's wait and see. If he opens the gates for the workers and allows people to work in Israel freely, I believe he's going to succeed. Ordinary Palestinians are not talking about a state now, or about freedom and independence. They're talking about how to find a side road to get to work by avoiding Israeli roadblocks.

You have to understand that this is no longer about an intifada. Where are the marches and demonstrations, or the civil disobedience? It's gone; it's history now. Nobody is talking intifada. Bullets are talking; M-16s and Kalashnikovs are talking. But this is not an intifada. If you want to win world public opinion, you don't shoot at Gilo. All that achieves is the destruction of 200 Palestinian houses, so it's a losing battle. If you want to fight, you have to have a strategy, and part of that program is that you can't allow your own people to suffer without end. That's not happening. People are starving, and unemployment is near 50 percent. You can't feed people with slogans.

So what is Arafat's strategy?

As far as I can tell, Arafat has no strategy, he has only tactics. He's hoping that Sharon will make a stupid mistake, kill 200 Palestinians and attract world condemnation. But Sharon is aware of that, and he's not going to give Arafat the pleasure. But having gotten the wider Arab and Muslim world involved in the conflict since late last year, Arafat has left himself very little room to maneuver on the key issues. He's stuck.

So the Palestinian leadership has no answer to the strategy of Sharon. If Israel allows Palestinians to return to work, Sharon's plan will succeed. Arafat can't keep saying the intifada will continue when the main concern of his people is to feed themselves and earn some income. If the Palestinian leadership keeps operating in this way, I predict that Sharon will easily survive his three-year term. His best assets may be his enemies, both on the Israeli and the Palestinian side.