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For Arafat, Hobson's Choice After Hamas Bus Bombing

October 23, 1994|Geoffrey Kemp | Geoffrey Kemp, senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, served on the National Security Council staff as adviser on the Middle East during the Reagan Administration

WASHINGTON — When Palestine Liberation Organization Chairman Yasser Arafat shook hands with Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin at the White House on Sept. 13, 1993, he became a pariah to radicals in the Palestinian movement and many others in the Muslim world. In their view, Arafat had made a deal with the devil and--like the traitor Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, who made peace with Israel and was assassinated--would also have to pay the ultimate price for his crimes.

Now, with his control of Palestinian territory still restricted to the Gaza Strip and Jericho--but with a Nobel Peace prize under his belt--Arafat faces his most fateful choice: When and how should he crack down on the extremist movement, Hamas, that threatens to destroy the delicate Middle East peace? In the wake of last week's terrorist bombing in Tel Aviv--in which more than 20 people were killed on a commuter bus on the busiest city street--Arafat's options are grim indeed.

Just as Israel's first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, had to use lethal force in the early days of independence in 1948 to disarm Jewish extremist groups led by Menachem Begin and Yitzhak Shamir, Arafat has known that a showdown with Hamas was inevitable. But unlike Ben-Gurion, who controlled most of the military and police forces of the new Jewish state, Arafat controls little.

His preference would surely have been to wait for a showdown until his own Palestinian forces controlled most of the occupied West Bank. As of now, he has the worst of all worlds: no control or authority in the West Bank and around Jerusalem, where many Hamas supporters come from, yet held responsible by Israelis for Hamas terrorism. He thus is under great pressure from the government of Israel and the United States to apprehend Hamas supporters in Gaza.

If he does so, as happened two weeks ago after the kidnaping of an Israeli soldier, Nachshon Waxman, he incurs the wrath of much of the Gaza population and is accused of being Israel's lackey. As it turned out, the kidnapers' hide-out was discovered near Jerusalem, two miles from the home of Waxman's parents. In the resulting shoot-out with Israeli forces, Waxman, another Israeli soldier, and three terrorists were killed.

With the kidnaping, Arafat could legitimately claim events were beyond his control. But this excuse will not work for long. Hamas headquarters are in Gaza, and, sooner or later, a terrorist event planned and coordinated from within his own enclave will occur, and he will have to act. In fact, it is certainly possible that Gaza-based Hamas members played a role in the string of recent attacks--including the Tel Aviv bombing.

In the aftermath of the latest terrorism, anger among the Palestinians is bound to grow as Israel's Draconian, but politically necessary, crackdowns take their toll of daily life and add to the already harsh conditions in Gaza. Arafat will be the lightning rod for this frustration. If he fails to act against the radicals he could lose control of his enclave. At that point, anarchy or a return of Israeli forces may result. Either way, Hamas will have won: The peace process will be over or on indefinite hold.

What, then, can Arafat do? First, to satisfy Israel and the United States, he must be more outspoken in his condemnation of terrorism and stress his willingness to take whatever steps are necessary to contain it--including asking for more help to strengthen his police and intelligence gathering.

Taking action to curb the militant extremists is needed to lend credibility to Arafat's words. A crackdown on Hamas in Gaza, including disarmament, coupled with action Israel will take in the West Bank, is essential to put the terrorists on the defensive.

Arafat will argue that unless more Palestinian areas are brought under his control, his opposition to terrorism may ultimately prove counterproductive. He can also argue that he must have more money to pay for basic services, like police, and establish some modicum of stability and infrastructure, which is the prerequisite for the transfer of much larger amounts of money from the private sector. There has been an understandable reluctance on the part of the main donor countries and the World Bank to hand Arafat money until he has set up an acceptable accounting procedure. While such reform is highly desirable, in the short term, such niceties may be a luxury if the alternative is anarchy.

Obviously, the constraints on Arafat's options would be less painful if elections could soon be held in the occupied territory, and the economic conditions of the local Palestinian population were seen to be improving. Hamas' appeal will begin to diminish once Arafat delivers on his promises of a better life for his people.

But how can Hamas be allowed to field candidates for electoral office as long as the organization's purpose--as outlined in its charter--is to reject the peace process, deny Israel's legitimacy and call for a holy war against infidels? Just as Israel outlaws racist groups, such as Kach, so the Palestinians must force Hamas to abandon its charter if it wishes to participate in elections. Arafat has to use his power to try to divide and weaken Hamas. He must be certain that, if a reformed Hamas participates in elections, it will abandon all calls for violence.

Some will argue that this logic will perpetuate Arafat's authoritarian and increasingly unpopular rule by fiat. But the alternative, giving more legitimacy to Hamas, would be unacceptable to most Israelis and reverse all the progress of the last year in Israeli-Palestinian relations.

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