After the Siege

Wreathed in smiles, Yasser Arafat on Sunday emerged from the sandbagged confines of his office in a giant leap for himself and a small step for his people. Under American pressure, the Israeli army had just pulled out from his Ramallah compound after ten days of siege and destruction. “A victory for morale”, was the general Palestinian view.

But not implementation of the UN Security Council resolution calling on Israel to end its “measures in and around Ramallah” and for an “expeditious withdrawal of the Israeli occupying forces from Palestinian cities … to positions held prior to September 2000″.

“There was no withdrawal,” fumed Arafat. “Their move is redeployment and they [the Israeli army] will stay only a few metres from my headquarters. This is not an implementation of the Security Council resolution. This is a fraud, with the intention of fooling the international community”.

Underscoring his point, Israeli tanks lumbered through the streets of Ramallah a few hours later to re-impose a curfew on its denizens. Army marksmen took up positions around the compound to track the “fugitives” whose extradition had once been the condition for their withdrawal. “We will find them,” vowed Ariel Sharon.

He probably will, underlining the reality that while the siege may have again burnished Arafat’s lustre in the eyes of his people, it is the army who remains their master.

But the Mukarta imbroglio also showed who is or can be the master of Sharon, when it so chooses. The Israeli leader reluctantly announced the “redeployment” following weekend meetings between his aide, Dov Weisglass, and US National Security Adviser, Condoleezza Rice in Washington.

She told him in no uncertain terms that the siege was harming efforts to reform the Palestinian Authority and “interfering” with American preparations to rally Arab support for military action against Iraq. Nor did she have much time for arguments about the “fugitives”, some of whom (including PA West Bank Intelligence chief Tawfik Tirawi) had until recently been in “security coordination” meetings with the Israeli army.

“When we made the [siege] decision … we did not anticipate to what extent America had already started its countdown to an attack on Iraq,” admitted Israeli Housing Minister Nathan Sharansky. But why did Sharon not “anticipate”, since the countdown could be heard far and wide?

Some Israeli analysts say the decision to besiege Arafat was an emotional over-reaction to suicide bombings that broke a six- week “lull” in Israel. Others that it was an elaborate conspiracy to stifle Palestinian moves to reform, including demands on Arafat to appoint a prime minister and so “corner” Sharon into resuming negotiations. Still others said it was a domestic ruse to score points against Binyamin Netanyahu ahead of the Likud primaries in November.

Whatever the motive it showed profound misjudgement, not least in assessing the winds blowing from Washington. “Woe unto us if [Israeli decisions on how to act in any war against Iraq] will be taken in the same wretched manner as the decision to demolish [Arafat's] compound,” warned Israeli analyst, Nahum Barnea, in Yediot Aharonot on Monday.

Palestinians too were assessing the meaning of the Mukarta. The wiser ones admit that America’s preoccupation with Iraq helped Arafat out of his latest jam. But they point out that US pressure was only seriously applied after thousands of Palestinians took to the streets in defence of their leader. “It shows that Palestinian popular forms of protest still have an impact on international opinion,” said PA Labour Minister Ghassan Khatib.

Similar sentiments were aired in rallies at the weekend commemorating the second anniversary of the Intifada. All shades of the Palestinian national movement said the uprising must continue, but several Fatah leaders urged it to become a movement of mass civil disobedience rather than military struggle. Hamas called for armed resistance, suicidal and otherwise.

It is an argument Hamas will probably win, if only because of Israeli actions. On Monday the army shot dead two Palestinian children after a day of popular protests in which Palestinians broke the curfew with nothing in their hands except stones and pipe bombs. In response to the killings, an Israeli soldier was shot dead and the curfew re-imposed by weight of tanks. Palestinians understand as long as this remains the reality in their cities “popular” protests will go nowhere.

Nor is it clear where Palestinian “reform” is going. At a meeting of the Fatah Central Council on Tuesday, Arafat received support for a two-week extension to his parliament’s deadline to form a new PA cabinet ahead of Palestinian elections in January. As for the appointment of a prime minister, the Council decided not to address the issue until “the establishment of a Palestinian state”.

“The idea has been cancelled from our lexicon. This is not the appropriate time,” said Sakher Habash, veteran FCC member.

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