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Arafat, Oslo Accord Are Sharon's Prime Prey


RAMALLAH, West Bank — The designs of Israel's vast military offensive are etched in the dust and debris of the battered landscape here. The greatest destruction, by far, has been visited on symbols of Palestinian self-rule.

The sprawling if ramshackle headquarters of Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat is in ruins, its walls toppled and replaced by barbed wire. The Palestinians' most important West Bank security compound, an elaborate multimillion-dollar manse, was ravaged by one of the army's most relentless aerial assaults in the current campaign. Army raids have repeatedly targeted police who, Israel has said in the past, were never involved in terrorism.

Israel's offensive has been portrayed as a fight against terrorism, and, to be sure, Israel would very much like to stop the wave of suicide bombers and ambushing gunmen who killed 106 Israeli civilians and soldiers last month alone. The last suicide bombing took place April 1.

But at its core, the offensive is a systematic attempt, fathered by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and midwifed by his military commanders, to finish off the Palestinian Authority, any remnant of the landmark Oslo peace process and, most important, Arafat.

This goal--largely achieved--could put Israel and Sharon at cross-purposes with the Bush administration as U.S. Secretary of State Colin L. Powell begins a new diplomatic drive to avoid wider war.

Bush and the U.S. government say they still want to work with the Palestinian Authority, which was established by the 1993 Oslo accords and until recently had served as a key element of the framework for Israeli-Palestinian relations.

To that end, the U.S. administration is calling on the Palestinian leadership to rein in militants, quell violence and implement American cease-fire proposals. Yet by so doing, it is relying on the very structure that no longer exists: a viable Palestinian Authority that Israel has meticulously worked to dismantle.

Sharon Not Alone in Criticizing Arafat

What Bush and Sharon may in fact agree on is Arafat.

Judging from his public statements, it seems that Bush, like Sharon, may be willing to jettison Arafat.

Bush has not missed an opportunity to criticize the Palestinian leader as a failure who has "let his people down." Bush's national security advisor, Condoleezza Rice, made a direct appeal to "other Palestinians" to renounce violence, if Arafat can't.

Palestinians and Israelis alike interpret this line of rhetoric as encouragement of an alternative leadership. With characteristic but pointed hyperbole, Saeb Erekat, a senior Palestinian official, says such talk is a "license to kill" Arafat.

Sharon makes it clear that he has no use for Arafat, nor for the Palestinian Authority. Sharon has repeatedly equated Arafat, his leadership and all Palestinian militancy with terrorism that must be wiped out. He appears eager to erase the last near-decade of history, when Oslo was drafted and signed and when Arafat and the Palestinian Authority were given some control over the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

"Israel is at the point of no return because Yasser Arafat and the Palestinian Authority have no intention of respecting any accord," Sharon said, adding that Israel will not return to "the way things were before" it began invading the West Bank on March 29.

In addition to destroying Arafat's headquarters, where the Palestinian leader remains captive, Israeli tanks, armored bulldozers and combat helicopters have torn up roads and smashed away at electricity and water infrastructure. Troops have ransacked the Education Ministry, the statistics bureau, most local television and radio stations, and the home of the Palestinian information and culture minister.

Of nearly 1,000 Palestinians arrested in Ramallah, about 30% are people Israel regards as dangerous. But many were arrested only because they were active in the first intifada 10 years ago; many were businessmen, doctors and police.

Offensive Undermines Security Services

Police, especially, were singled out for humiliating treatment. They were forced to strip to their underwear and turn in their weapons. Once in detention camps, they were forced to sit with their heads in a downward position, according to other Palestinians who have been released.

By hitting steadily at the police forces, Sharon is undermining the very pillars of the Palestinian Authority. Nothing more symbolizes the autonomy of the aspiring Palestinian state than its own security services.

The war on the police forces culminated last week with an eight-hour bombardment of the elegant U.S.-built headquarters of the Preventive Security Service complex of Col. Jibril Rajoub, one of the most powerful Palestinians in the West Bank.

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