'Arafat is Losing'

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THOMAS COEX/AFP

A Palestinian youths hides behind garbage containers to protect himself

TIME.com: Israeli forces have entered Bethlehem following new firing on nearby Gilo. That puts them right on your doorstep…

Jamil Hamad: From my bedroom window I can see a tank. And the shooting is as loud as if I'm sitting in an orchestra playing the 9th Symphony of Beethoven.

The "Ode to Joy?"

Exactly.

Yasser Arafat has begun arresting members of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), which was responsible for the assassination earlier this week of Israeli cabinet minister Rehavam Zeevi. Will this provoke a showdown between Arafat and the PFLP and other radical elements in the West Bank and Gaza?

No, the attacks on Arafat will come from the PFLP organization in Damascus rather than in the West Bank or Gaza. Arafat decided to arrest at least eight of them. The Popular Front, for him, is a lightweight boxer that he can easily knock down. But he would suffer from the campaign they would launch against him from Damascus, which started yesterday with accusations that the arrests are aimed to serve only the interests of the Americans and Israelis.

I can assure you that many people were very joyful was when Zeevi assassinated, but can we say all? No. Politically speaking, I think the Palestinians who did this did not think of all of the political consequences that would follow the assassination. As a wise Palestinian told me off the record, "I believe that the people who sent Palestinians to assassinate the Israeli ambassador in London in May 1982 are the same people who sent the assassins of Zeevi. Because they knew and know the reaction of the Israelis. (The 1982 killing sparked Israel's invasion of Lebanon.) And they wanted to punish Arafat."

So their goal was also to stop him reviving peace talks?

Yes, and to antagonize Israelis against Arafat and the Palestinian Authority. But Arafat has put himself in this situation. There is an old Arab saying that you shouldn't play with cats unless you're prepared to accept scratches on your hands. You can't work with radical groups who are conducting terror attacks and then expect them to stop when you say "stop!" It's not that easy.

Now Arafat is losing on several fronts. He wants to have a cease-fire. He wants to please the Americans. He wants to appear as an enemy of terrorists. But in politics, you can't be nice to everybody. Still, the assassination of the Israeli minister was a very good help to Sharon against the American pressure for renewed peace talks. Because Sharon can now say to the Americans "You are fighting terrorism in Afghanistan and you don't have proof. I have proof. I have sent the names to Arafat of those responsible. And if he doesn't hand them over, I'm going to deal with them myself." But Arafat can't afford to send them to the Israelis, because he will be accused of being collaborator.

This is the second clash in as many weeks between Arafat and militant Palestinian organizations. Two weeks ago his police killed three Islamist protestors in Gaza at a demonstration against the U.S. bombing of Afghanistan. Now they're rounding up PFLP members. But these are many of the same people alongside whom Arafat's security forces have fought over the past year. How is this affecting the cohesion of his administration?

Arafat is losing. The intifada didn't achieve anything politically or militarily. He used to claim that intifada achieved Palestinian national unity. But the national unity after what happened in Gaza and what happened this week has been lost. Arafat can't survive without national unity. If Arafat has to make a choice, he'll take national unity over meeting Israel's demands.

So how are the Israelis likely to react?

They can't let this assassination pass easily. To them it's a slap in the face on a par with the World Trade Center attack. So Sharon has to strengthen his internal front. Before this he was in trouble with his cabinet; now he's in a better position. Sharon's game is political survival. He has to hit strongly against Arafat. That's the way that polishes his image in eyes of Israelis. Even if that means losing international support. Who cares about international support? America is preoccupied with Afghanistan. Only Colin Powell has the time to make telephone calls to Sharon. And telephone calls will not solve the problem. For Sharon's purposes, this is the proper time to achieve his aims against the Palestinians. Every time Israeli leaders get into trouble, somehow the Palestinians manage to do something that ends up helping them out.