The Chairman of the Palestinian Authority is nervous and speaks aggressively. Hamas and the activists get the hint: He will not oppose a little “pressure” on Israel, which will also press the Americans. The result: Modest attacks, such as the ones this week. The relative security that Israel has enjoyed during the past year is not guaranteed. Barak to Arafat: Israel will not negotiate under the shadow of terrorism.
Arafat is under pressure these days. A great deal of pressure, say security sources who know well what goes on in the Palestinian Authority. He had developed a high level of expectations regarding Ehud Barak and now is not certain if they will be realized. Sharp criticism has been leveled against him from both the Arab world and from within the Palestinian ranks, and it seems that even the Americans have cooled their relationship with him. As always, when Arafat is anxious, nervous and angry, the Palestinian “street” wakes up and begins rioting and committing acts of violence. The same sources are quick to clarify that Arafat is not the man who directly initiated the wave of Palestinian violence that began this month and is now gaining strength. But the recent angry and warlike statements of the Rais and senior Palestinian officials signaled to both Hamas leaders and Fatah street activists (the Hawks) that “modest physical pressure” on Israel will not harm, and may even help, the Palestinian Authority in the present critical period.
Arafat has done nothing to correct this impression, even after it became perfectly clear that the terrorist organizations and violent institutions loyal to the Palestinian Authority — those who were under its iron control during the period of the election and government formation — had resumed their activities. Arafat and his security chiefs know well that they are riding a tiger that is hard to control. They are aware of the fact that the recent shootings in Samaria and Hebron were carried out by Hamas personnel, who were sent by their organization to torpedo the revitalized peace process. This objective appears to be against Arafat’s general interest which actually wants the process to go forward. But it seems that the PA Chairman believes that low- level violence is useful in order to hint to the Israeli government and public opinion what could happen on the ground should Wye not be implemented in both spirit and deed, and in order to create a feeling of urgency in the American administration.
Therefore, Arafat is not sending his security chiefs to carry out effective pre-emptive strikes against the local cells. However, the security forces and counterintelligence service do continue to aggressively attack Hamas’ professional hard-core in order to prevent mass terrorist attacks which could halt the peace process in its tracks.
Approximately two months ago, a senior security official sent an unequivocal message directly from Barak to Arafat, according to which Israel will not agree to implement the Wye accord or continue negotiations on the permanent settlement under the pressure of terrorism. Arafat believes the message, but he continues to try to walk a fine line.
The division of labor is clear enough: The shootings in Samaria and Hebron are carried out by local Hamas cells, so that Arafat can disclaim any responsibility for their actions, without trouble; the violent demonstrations at Netzarim junction, in Hebron and at Joseph’s Tomb in Nablus are carried out by the Fatah Hawks, who, while belonging to the organization that Arafat heads, have their own leadership which criticizes Arafat’s policies, thus enabling him to disclaim direct responsibility for their actions as well.
In the event that these demonstrations get out of control, Arafat can show magnanimity towards Israel, and order his police to disperse them without great effort. This is how he has acted in recent weeks, with not a little success from his point of view.
What is now happening on the ground is the exact dose that Arafat prescribes: Sporadic and not very professional or effective operations mostly carried out against settlers or IDF forces in the territories. That is enough to send a message.
But we have seen a clear escalating trend this week. There were two attacks Tuesday, including the deliberate running-over of soldiers at Nahshon Junction inside the State of Israel’s territory. The conclusion is that if the disputes between Barak and Arafat continue or even worsen, one can expect a parallel intensification of the violence in the territories in their current format.
A Militia Army
According to Israeli analysts, Arafat has never neglected the use of violence and terrorism as a lever to advance his goals. The results of the 1996 elections, which raised Netanyahu to power, taught him that terrorism could become a two-edged sword that hurts him and prevents him from achieving his political goals. Therefore, he is careful now, and sends out his security apparatus to collect intelligence and to foil specific initiatives by Hamas and the Islamic Jihad to commit massive attacks.
His forces have reaped successes in this field recently. Security cooperation with Israel is generally quite good, for the same reason and same objective. But at the same time, Arafat is careful not to destroy Hamas’ infrastructure so that it can be used — if necessary — as a strategic weapon of terrorism.
Arafat regards the suicide bombers who carry explosives on their bodies into the heart of population centers the same way that Syria and Iran regard their ballistic missiles — as a strategic weapon, to be used against the Israeli civilian homefront if the Palestinians’ strategic interests are in danger. He will use this weapon if and when he concludes that Israel is preventing him from establishing the Palestinian state more or less in the format that is acceptable to him. When the Hamas infrastructure is at issue, the intention is the organization’s social, economic and religious activities which enable its leaders to recruit fighters and send them for training abroad.
Alongside the suicide terrorism, which is Arafat’s strategic weapon, the PA Chairman has a fighting force which can be activated for guerrilla warfare. What is called the “Palestinian National Police” is in fact a militia army that can be used against settlements, roads and IDF bases in the territories. The fighting that broke out after the opening of the Western Wall Tunnel in September 1996 shows what these forces can do. The IDF is prepared for such an eventuality, and has fortified the settlements, but if Arafat decides to use this option it could claim many victims from both sides.
Four factors are behind Arafat’s current distress, causing him to drift towards renewed violence. First, he is concerned that Barak is a more sophisticated version of Netanyahu — he speaks nicely but does not intend to carry out the Wye agreements as written and prefers the Syrian channel over the peace process with the Palestinians. Senior PA officials have claimed to Israelis with whom they have met, that, “We gave Israel security during the elections, enabling Barak to be elected, and now you prefer the Syrians to us.” The hint was that only one mass terrorist attack would be enough for Israel to put the Palestinians back at the top of the agenda.
The second factor for Arafat’s feeling of distress is the fact that the American administration, at Barak’s request, has abandoned its role as mediator and judge of Israeli-Palestinian relations, and has returned to the role of assistant. This is a retreat, from Arafat’s perspective, and is costing him an important lever of pressure on Israel. During the Netanyahu government, Arafat took care to restrain Hamas mainly in order to protect the special relationship he developed with Washington. Now he fears that his relations with Washington have returned to their earlier format, and this is what might cause him to lose his motivation to fight terrorism.
The third factor is the venomous criticism directed at Arafat from Arab countries like Syria, Libya and Iran as well, and of course from the Palestinian opposition. This is occurring at the same time that he is trying to bring about a reconciliation with the Palestinian rejectionist front in order to build a united front for the fateful permanent settlement negotiations. The reconciliation is vital for him in order to block the charge that he does not represent all Palestinians, thus limiting his negotiating flexibility.
The pressure on him is enormous, say the analysts. The economic situation in the territories is not improving, the Fatah field operatives are angry with him because he gave the important and income-generating offices to his close associates from Tunis, and only gave them the leftovers. This is why the Hawks are challenging his rule and carrying out operations that anger him.
Arafat is in a Hurry
In light of all this, Arafat feels he has to hurry. He feels that his position in the territories is weakening, and that if he does not declare a Palestinian state by May 2000, he might miss the train and not achieve his dream to be the first president of an independent Palestinian state. Hamas, under the leadership of Sheikh Yassin, would build on his ruins. Hamas has so far avoided a frontal conflict with Arafat, but it is gradually building up its power.
There can be no doubt that the joint operations of the GSS and the Palestinian security forces have recently struck hard at Hamas’ operational ability. The organization’s military ability has also been weakened due to internal conflict between Sheikh Yassin and its leaders in the territories, and between the organization’s leaders in Jordan, Dr. Mussa Abu-Marzouk and Khaled Masha’al, and Imad al-‘Alami who operate from Damascus and Lebanon.
The Hawk’s leaders also oppose the establishment of a Palestinian state according to Arafat’s formula, and want to carry out attacks to torpedo the peace process and force Israel to surrender under the pressure of violence. Yassin knows that if Hamas operates on this principle, it could drag Arafat into a war to destroy him, and cause the majority of the population — which supports Arafat’s policy goals — to resist him. He therefore prefers build his economic and political power and to wait for the moment when Hamas will inherit the PA’s political apparatus and what it has won from Israel. Then it can continue the struggle to establish an Islamic state in the entire land of Palestine.
Hamas in the territories is obeying Yassin for now, and the organization’s leaders abroad are therefore trying to build a model for operations in the territories based on secret, isolated and separate cells, who receive their orders directly from Amman and Damascus. They are also trying to give these cells the operational ability to carry out attacks using material, means and methods not used by Palestinian terrorists up till now, and which will enable them to carry out mass attacks inside Israeli territory. For this purpose, they are sending terrorists from the territories to Iran to learn new operational methods, and they even pay the Iranians for this service. One cell of this type has already been caught by the GSS and its members put on trial.
An additional important source of power for the militant Hamas is the prisoners held in Israeli jails. A very senior official recently noted that the control in Israeli prisons is, in practice, held by security prisoners. This permits them to direct and initiate terrorist attacks and street violence from inside the jails, with the primary objective of pressuring Israel to release Hamas prisoners without regard to whether they have blood on their hands or not.
In light of these facts, it can be concluded that the relative security Israel has enjoyed during the past year is not guaranteed. It is reasonable to assume that for a little while — mainly during the permanent settlement negotiations — we are likely to face a wave of Palestinian violence and terrorism, far more serious and dangerous that which we have witnessed up until now.