|Al-Ahram Weekly On-line
15 - 21 March 2001
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Standing on the brinkYasser Arafat and Ariel Sharon engaged in their first joust as rival national leaders this week and the portents could hardly be bleaker. Graham Usher reports from "encircled" Ramallah
Yasser Arafat did a rare thing on Saturday: he addressed his people. The Palestinian leader gave an all-encompassing speech to 66 of the 88 elected deputies of the Palestinian Legislative Council, holding its first full session in Gaza in five months. As always with Arafat, the horizon was tinged with the hue of all seasons.
On the one hand, Arafat reaffirmed that peace remained the "strategic option" of the Palestinian people and re-acknowledged Israelis' "need for security and stability." On the other hand, mindful of the firm Palestinian national consensus on the Intifada, he reaffirmed that Israel, too, must recognise "the needs and rights of the Palestinian people" and that these could not be less than those granted them by international legitimacy -- namely, Israel's withdrawal from "all" Arab land occupied in 1967, including "noble Jerusalem," and the right of return of Palestinian refugees as embodied in UN Resolution 194.
With an eye on the upcoming Arab summit, he also lambasted Israel's policies of "military escalation, siege and starvation" in the occupied territories and repeated his call for international forces to provide protection to Palestinian civilians, preferably through the convening of a special UN Security Council meeting.
Unsurprisingly, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon found both the tone and content of the speech "disappointing." He was further irritated the same day by a Saudi newspaper interview with Arafat, in which the PA leader said the "Intifada will continue" and any future negotiations with Israel must resume "from the point where they ended at Taba." Both positions are non-starters as far as Sharon and his 26-member government are concerned.
In response to the speech, Sharon made it clear that he would not meet Arafat before his trip to Washington on 19 March and he instituted the first steps of his new military policy for the occupied territories.
While Arafat was stretching out his hands for a "peace of the brave," the Israeli army reinforced trenches and earth ramparts that sever Ramallah from 25 villages in its northern West Bank hinterland and used tanks to block the town's main road to Jerusalem. The blockade effectively imprisons 65,000 Palestinians within the sister cities of Ramallah and Al-Bireh and prevents access to it for another 165,000, including the 5,000 students at Bir Zeit University.
An Israeli soldier stops a Palestinian boy during a patrol following clashes in the centre of Hebron
Similarly, the army met an entirely peaceful march called by the university on Monday with a storm of tear gas, rubber bullets and live ammunition, leaving 80 Palestinians wounded and one dead. According to eyewitnesses, Abdel-Qader Ibrahim, a member of Palestinian Authority military intelligence was shot through the chest while standing away from the protest and next to Fatah West Bank leader, Marwan Al-Barghouti. The army issued no comment on the killing, which Fatah interpreted as one more in a string of Israeli political assassinations.
PLO negotiator Yasser Abed Rabbo denounced the siege of Ramallah as "Sharon's racist war against the Palestinian people." Arafat kept his counsel, but in this his first joust with the new Israeli leader, the battle-lines were already clear. "And they almost certainly mean confrontation," says one PA security source.
Sharon seems to mean what he says, that there will be no negotiations or any real alleviation of the siege unless Arafat moves to quell the uprising by resuming security cooperation with the Israeli army and denouncing, "clearly and publicly," all forms of Palestinian "violence and terror." The only concession offered is that the army will be able to "relax" and "tighten" its hold, on an "area-by-area" basis throughout the occupied territories. "It is quite an exchange for a loaf of bread," says the PA source.
Such "bread" is clearly indigestible to Arafat, who can only adopt the posture of "non-interference" he has maintained throughout most of the uprising, whether in relation to the sporadic armed resistance waged in Gaza and parts of the West Bank or to the increasingly ruinous state of his Palestinian Authority. "He is basically saying to the Israelis that he is not going to run the show any longer unless he is given something worth his while to do so," says Palestinian political analyst Khalil Shikaki.
But what could that "something" be? Shikaki believes there has to be international pressure on Israel to lift the siege and resume some form of final status negotiations, "even if they are dead the day they convene." This would at least afford Arafat a way to resume talks on the "interim arrangements," including some form of security cooperation, that both Sharon and his foreign minister, Shimon Peres, say they now seek. But here, too, Israel must give as well as receive, says Shikaki.
Given the enormous human and material sacrifices of the uprising, Arafat "must get a further Israeli redeployment in the West Bank large enough to convince the Palestinians that a sovereign state is at least on the way," Shikaki says. The PA leader would also need a freeze on all settlement construction and the release of Palestinian political prisoners. All of this could, in theory, be agreed upon without Sharon, Peres or Arafat having to cross any of their stated red lines.
The problem lies elsewhere. There is nothing in Sharon's rhetoric, governmental guidelines or actions to suggest that he will allow such an exit. Israel's prime minister prefers an unconditional surrender, while Arafat cannot surrender to Sharon's terms, says Shikaki, without "cracking down on the Palestinian street in an extremely tough and bloody way" and losing whatever national legitimacy he and his forces have accrued. This is a non-starter for Arafat, says Shikaki. "In other words, we are engaged in brinkmanship. And it's very, very dangerous."
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