Israel has blamed Arafat's administration for previous terror attacks during the current violence on the grounds that the PA earlier released a number of Hamas and Islamic Jihad militants from its prisons. The latest attack and the swift Israeli retaliation, which will in turn prompt further Palestinian retaliation, has once again ratcheted up a cycle of violence that had shown signs of slowing late last week after Arafat had appeared on Palestinian TV to order an end to firing on Israelis from territories under his control.
Arafat's Authority Challenged
Ordering a cease-fire without appearing to gain much in return was always going to test Arafat's political authority even among his own supporters, and not only the opposition Hamas and Islamic Jihad factions which have openly challenged Arafat's leadership but even the rank-and-file militiamen of his own Fatah organization have vowed to defy his cease-fire call. High-profile terror attacks have until now been the Islamists most effective weapon against any moves toward peace; they're not unpopular on the Palestinian street, and the rage they generate in Israel creates irresistible political pressure on the Israeli leadership for even tougher action against Palestinians which in turn simply fuels the anger on the Palestinian street and further weakens Arafat's authority.
The Gaza attack also highlights the rationale for the unilateral "divorce" option touted by Israeli officials in recent weeks, in which Israel simply withdraws from those parts of the West Bank and Gaza that are difficult to defend, breaking economic ties and giving Arafat a patchwork Palestinian state. For Barak, ultimately, the principle of risking soldiers' lives in order to protect a handful of settlers deep inside hostile territory outside the borders of Israel proper is unappealing, and he's long advocated consolidating settlements in areas adjacent to Israel that can be annexed in order to create new, defensible borders. But that option is singularly unattractive for Arafat, for whom it would mean a tiny statelet lacking in territorial integrity and economic viability. Still, the latest attack shows that the fate of the Palestinians and their relationship with Israel is no longer simply in the hands of Arafat and Barak.