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Palestinian Authority

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Killing Yasser Arafat?

15 September 2003

 Killing Yasser Arafat?

By Gwynne Dyer

“Killing (Yasser Arafat) is definitely one of the options,” said Israel’s deputy prime minister Ehud Olmert last Sunday. “We are trying to eliminate all the heads of terror, and Arafat is one of the heads of terror.” It is the first time in fifteen years that a senior Israeli leader has openly called for Arafat’s death, and it is not immediately obvious why he should do so now. The recent round of violence that destroyed the June ceasefire, with Israeli targeted assassinations of Palestinian militia leaders alternating with Palestinian suicide bombings, had no direct connection to Arafat.

As part of the concerted Israeli-American effort to sideline Arafat and create a more malleable Palestinian leadership over the past two years, there have been endless assertions by both Jerusalem and Washington of Arafat’s continuing involvement in terrorism, and no doubt his intelligence services are aware of some of the militias’ plans. But there is no evidence that Arafat has collaborated with the extremists in their plans, nor that he could stop them even if he wanted to.

Olmert’s argument skipped past all that and took Arafat’s leading role in sponsoring terrorist attacks against Israel as a given. “From a moral point of view, (the assassination of Arafat) is no different from others who were involved in acts of terror. It is only a practical question. What is the benefit? What will be the reaction?” Avi Dichter, head of the Shin Bet security service, even contended that killing Arafat would actually be safer than sending him into exile, because the furore would die down more quickly if the Palestinian leader were dead.

Washington definitely opposes the idea: US Secretary of State Colin Powell’s instant response was that “The United States does not support either the elimination…or the exile of Mr. Arafat. I think you can anticipate that there would be rage throughout the Arab world, the Muslim world and in many other parts of the world.” Not too cheery a prospect when the US is already sinking into a political and military quagmire in occupied Iraq, but Israel rarely lets American concerns restrict its freedom of action.

There is certainly a case for saying that Yasser Arafat should have died fifteen years ago. His career as a terrorist was remarkably successful, bringing global recognition to the Palestinians as a distinct people with rights to at least some of the land of former Palestine. But as a diplomat, and later as the elected president of the Palestinian Authority, he combined corrupt and nepotistic rule at home with hopelessly naive negotiating tactics with Israel. As General Yusuf Nasser, newly nominated as interior minister in the PA government, allegedly told Arafat last week, he was “the most incompetent revolutionary leader in history.”

Wishing Arafat dead is not the same as killing him, however, nor does any sane observer believe that murdering him would lead to a decline in terrorist attacks on Israel. On the contrary, as senior Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erakat warned last Sunday, “Militias (like Hamas, Islamic Jihad, and the al-Aqsa Brigades) would take over with machine-guns. The first thing they would do…is kill me, like the rest of the moderates.” The people around Israel’s Prime Minister Ariel Sharon are intelligent enough to understand that, so why are they toying with the idea of killing Arafat?

There is an interpretation of events, quite widespread among both Israelis and Palestinians, which argues that the extremists on the two sides act in tacit collaboration to prevent more moderate groups from successfully negotiating a compromise peace. The hard right in Israel makes the necessary noises about peace to placate Washington, but it does not really want to trade the Jewish settlements in the occupied territories for a peace it does not trust in any case. Palestinian extremists, both Islamist and secular, are equally determined to thwart a two-state solution that leaves a demilitarised Palestinian state in a permanently inferior relationship with an Israel that still controls almost 80 percent of former Palestine.

Opinion surveys consistently show that over two-thirds of Israelis and the same proportion of Palestinians reject the extremists and support the idea of two states living side by side, separated by Israel’s pre-1967 borders. But under Ariel Sharon the hard right is already in power in Israel, and thanks to the blood-letting of the past three years the extremist militias now enjoy the support of at least a third of the Palestinian population.

Killing Arafat would destroy the civilian government of the Palestinian Authority and bring the militias to power, ending all pressure on the Israeli government for concessions leading to a peace agreement. There would be a storm of condemnation of Sharon’s government at first, but the current US administration would not abandon him under any circumstances. And provided his coalition holds together, Sharon would then have almost four more years to thicken up Jewish settlements in the West Bank and wall them off from the remaining Palestinian parts of the territory behind his ‘security fence’.

Nobody knows if this is now Sharon’s intention, maybe not even Sharon himself. It would probably put paid to the hope of an Israeli-Palestinian negotiated peace for a generation, but that was never Sharon’s dream anyway. As Hemi Shalev wrote in ‘Ma’ariv’ on Sunday: “The government has placed a loaded gun on the table, and with the next terror attack, if and when it occurs, it is plausible that its only choice will be to shoot — even if the main victim is Israel itself.”


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 4 and 8. (“Washington…action”; and “opinion…population”)

The Strategy of Suicide Bombs

6 January 2003

The Strategy of Suicide Bombs

By Gwynne Dyer

 Terrorism isn’t about killing innocent people; that’s just a means to an end. Terrorism is about goading a stronger opponent into behaving in ways that will benefit your cause.

On Sunday, for the first time since November, a couple of Palestinian suicide-bombers got through and blew themselves up in central Tel Aviv. At least 23 people were killed, most of the foreign workers from Africa and Asia who came to Israel to do the low-wage jobs that were once filled by Palestinians. With wearisome predictability, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s spokesman blamed Yasser Arafat: “This terrorist attack has earned the Palestinian Authority’s stamp of approval. It is a direct result of persistent incitement coming out of the Palestinian Authority and its refusal to rein in the terrorists in its midst.”

Sorry, could you run that by me again? You’re talking about Yasser Arafat, the man whose whole career was dedicated to the goal of getting his people recognised as Palestinians (with rights to at least some of the land of what used to be called Palestine), rather than mere refugees with a right only to a tent and daily rations? The man who then risked assassination by his own hard-liners by renouncing terrorism, signing the Oslo accords with Yitzhak Rabin, and then, after Rabin was assassinated, waiting patiently while Binyamin Netanyahu stalled for three years on fulfilling the terms of the accords? You reckon he sent the bombers?

Sharon’s spokesman doesn’t really believe that Arafat sent the bombers. He’s just ‘on message’ — the message being that we must discredit Arafat because he’s still the really dangerous Palestinian, the one who wants to make a deal. Sharon isn’t interested in making any deal that gives the Palestinians a viable country in what remains of their original territory, because that would block his purpose of incorporating much of that land into Israel. So his goal is to paint all Palestinians who want to make a deal as unreasonable terrorists who have no interest in a deal.

Yasser Arafat is his own worst enemy, of course. He was a brilliant guerilla/terrorist leader, cunning, long-sighted, and staunch in adversity, but he is an inept negotiator and a dreadful administrator.

The reason everybody has all but given up on the Palestinian Authority is that Arafat never graduated from being a guerilla leader: he maintains control over his administration by appointing three, or four, or five men to do the same job, setting them against one another so that only he can adjudicate the disputes. When you finally get in to see him, five or six hours after the agreed time, you are likely to find him personally signing cheques for only a few hundred dollars: Arafat is a bandit chieftain who never managed the transition to real power.

The last and greatest service he could have done for the Palestinian people would have been to die in the siege of Beirut twenty years ago, leaving it to a younger, better educated generation of Palestinians to negotiate a land-and-peace agreement with a triumphant but still vulnerable Israel. Alas, he didn’t.

So there he sits still, a trembling, superannuated relic who now serves mainly as an Israeli bogeyman. But did he really send the bombers to the Tel Aviv bus station to kill all those foreigners? Don’t be silly.

Comfortable people in safe places see the phrase ‘enemies of peace’ as mere rhetoric. I mean, nobody could really be the enemy of peace, could they? But there are people on both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict who are genuinely the enemies of peace — or at least, of peace on any terms that would be acceptable to the other side. They are the whole-hoggers, who don’t ever want to compromise on the territory they believe is theirs, and many of them are quite willing to kill in order to prevent the wrong kind of peace. On the Palestinian side, most of them are Islamists, but some are not.

The al-Aqsa Brigades who claimed responsibility for Sunday’s Tel Aviv bombings are not Islamists. They are a faction that still has a formal connection to Arafat’s Fatah organisation (unlike Hamas and Islamic Jihad, who do not) But either al-Aqsa are a very stupid group of people who have let their anger lead them astray, or they have consciously gone over to the side of the Islamists who dream of a total victory over Israel in the long run, and fight to prevent a negotiated peace in the short run.

The effect of these attacks, obviously, is to improve Ariel Sharon’s chances of being re-elected at the end of this month, which would guarantee that there is no risk of a negotiated peace that gives Palestinians only part of Palestine for the indefinite future. It was never likely that the peace candidate, Amram Mitzna, would win, but you can’t be too careful. So the bombers are out in force, just as they were in 1996 when there was a risk that the peace candidate, Shimon Peres, would win against Netanyahu. Terrorism is never ‘blind’; it is politics by other means.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraph 6. (“The reason…power”)