What's With Arafat's Call for Calm?

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Palestinians protesters in Gaza aim their slingshots at Israeli forces

Yasser Arafat is feeling the heat. That much was clear Friday when he made an unprecedented appearance on Palestinian television to urge Palestinians to stop firing on Israelis from territory controlled by his Palestinian Authority. But the Israelis remain unmoved by the Palestinian leader's claim that he is doing everything in his power to enforce a cease-fire in areas under his control. Instead, they're maintaining their tight blockade of Palestinian towns, withholding millions of dollars of tax revenues owed to Arafat's administration, and mounting new air and tank-artillery strikes against PA positions and areas in which gunmen are taking refuge. And the Palestinian leader's unusual announcement suggests that Arafat is under pressure from an adversary who packs the military and economic superiority to force him onto the ropes.

But Arafat's announcement notwithstanding, the Palestinians are unlikely to throw in the towel in their new intifada. For one thing, it remains an open question whether Arafat's political authority is still sufficient to force the rank and file of his own Fatah organization, let alone the religious militants of Hamas and Islamic Jihad, to comply. But some Israeli leaders believe Arafat's gesture may be a political maneuver, and it's not hard to see why: For the past quarter century, Arafat's primary theater of operations has not been the Palestinian street or the guerrilla training camp, but the diplomatic arena. And read as a diplomatic gambit, his public call for restraint may actually increase the political pressure on the Israelis.

Guerrilla warfare

The Kalashnikovs and homemade bombs of the Palestinian militiamen are no match for the high-tech weaponry Israel has shown increasing willingness to use in this battle to defend its presence in the West Bank and Gaza. But war, as Clausewitz famously noted, is the continuation of politics by other means — and the Palestinians' military disadvantages in a guerrilla confrontation of the type emerging in recent weeks are compensated for by certain political advantages. The clashes that have claimed more than 230 Palestinian and 24 Israeli lives in the past two months are occurring primarily in territory occupied by Israel since 1967 — territory in which Israel's continued presence has very little legitimacy in the eyes of the international community.

Kosovo option

The scale of Israel's response is bound to increase international pressure to withdraw from the West Bank and Gaza, or accept the presence of an international force to protect the Palestinians. That may tempt some Palestinian militia leaders to pursue the strategy used by the Kosovo Liberation Army — small-scale guerrilla attacks that eventually provoked the Serbs into committing high-profile massacres such as the one at Racak, which helped build the pressure for NATO intervention. Of course the situation in the West Bank is substantially different, but the temptation to mimic the KLA strategy will no doubt arise. An Israeli missile on Thursday killed a German resident who'd been trying to help an injured neighbor in the Palestinian neighborhood of Beit Jalla, during a firefight between gunmen hiding in the neighborhood and Israeli forces in Gilo, an adjacent Jewish neighborhood built on land confiscated from Beit Jalla. A joint Israeli-German investigation of the circumstances surrounding Harald Fischer's death is unlikely to mute European criticism of Israel's methods or calls for an international presence.

'Lebanon effect'

Growing Palestinian casualties will also increase pressure on the neighboring Arab regimes to take a harder line against Israel than they have up to now, and potentially even raise the pressure on the next U.S. administration to take a more critical stance. But the key component of a protracted guerrilla warfare strategy on the Palestinian side would be the "Lebanon" effect": the assumption that, as in Lebanon, the Israeli public will eventually tire of sustaining even a relatively low level of continuous casualties simply to protect settlements and outposts deep inside Palestinian territory.

Arafat and Barak are both talking about peace, and how to revive it. But on the ground, the reality remains war. But whether at the peace table or in the dusty streets, the question they're trying to settle is who rules the West Bank and Gaza.