'Arafat Has Painted Himself Into a Corner'

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How will Palestinians read Tuesday's intervention by Secretary of State Colin Powell that appears to have prompted Israel to withdraw after reoccupying a piece of Gaza in the wake of a mortar attack on Israel?

Jamil Hamad: I think the Israelis made a mistake, and that mistake was what caused the Americans to protest. Because it was a mistake that the Americans could not ignore — occupying another country is crossing a certain boundary. When Saddam Hussein entered Kuwait, that led most of the Arab states to support the U.S. in the Gulf War. So the Americans could not keep silent in the face of what had happened in Gaza, even if they believed Israel had been provoked by the mortar attacks.

Right now, the only peace initiative in the region appears to be the efforts by Egypt and Jordan to broker a cease-fire and restart talks. What are its chances of success?

The Americans no longer have the nerve and the patience to get into the details of this conflict, so they're relying on Jordan and Egypt to do more of the work because they'd like to see the situation quiet down. But a major weakness of the plan is that it doesn't involve the Palestinians. Even if Israel did accept, what guarantees can Jordan and Egypt offer that the Palestinians would implement their side of the deal?

On the ground things have moved to the point that it's becoming a war. Hamas on Monday claimed responsibility for the mortar attack on Sderot. If that had happened a year ago, 20 Hamas leaders would have been arrested on the spot and the Palestinian police and intelligence would come down hard on the organization. Instead, today, they talk about coordination of protest activities on the ground between the Islamists and Arafat's organization. I don't see a conflict between Arafat and the Islamists at this stage — that would arise only if Arafat declared a truce with the Israelis. And that's part of the reason why he can't do it, politically.

Does this mean Palestinians are now preparing for war?

That's what we're seeing and hearing every day. And it's a great victory for Hamas, Hezbollah and other Islamists, whose strategy has always been to kill the peace process. The achievement of the Palestinian Authority is that Israelis are absolutely united now in not trusting any Palestinian. The idea of reconciliation between Israel and the Palestinians is not only dead; it's buried. What we're seeing now is not an intifada any longer. The intifada, too, is over — now we're seeing something that those in the military academies would call a "low-intensity war."

And is Arafat politically unable to rein in the militants even if he wanted to at this point?

The Palestinian street has not been prepared for any kind of compromise with the Israelis now. The only basis, in the mind of Arafat, on which he could stop this war would be an international intervention in the form of a United Nations protection force. Then he could tell Palestinians that he won the war, and they are now protected by U.N. And of course that's not going to happen, which is why there's unlikely to be an end to violence any time soon. Arafat is pressing so hard for international troops because if he signed a cease-fire, there is a good chance that violence would break out among Palestinians.

And if Israel-Palestinian relations have reached the point where they have to be mediated by Jordan and Egypt, then both sides are in trouble. And that's the situation — both sides are in serious trouble, and they will be for some time to come. Sharon is right that the idea of peace tomorrow is a waste of time; it will take many years now to rebuild trust between Israelis and Palestinians.