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THE WORLD | NEWS ANALYSIS

A Changed Landscape Lies Outside Arafat's Door

April 29, 2002|TRACY WILKINSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

JERUSALEM — When Yasser Arafat steps out of his ravaged base in the West Bank for the first time in months, he may not recognize what he sees.

Assuming a U.S.-brokered deal takes effect and the siege on Arafat's compound is lifted, the Palestinian Authority president will tread into a physical and political wasteland, a West Bank devastated by three weeks of assault by the most powerful army in the Middle East.

Israel says it launched the offensive to root out terrorists responsible for a horrific wave of suicide bombings. In its wake, the Israeli army left the ruins of government buildings, private homes, schoolrooms, police stations and electrical grids. In addition to rounding up suspected militants and confiscating caches of weapons, the army seized or destroyed payrolls, school records, computers and cars.

How Arafat will begin to rebuild any part of the quasi-state he governed not long ago is a mystery. Despite assurances to the contrary from negotiators, his movements are likely to remain tightly restricted. Israel also destroyed his helicopters and dug up the runway of the only Palestinian airport.

Mounds of rubble and debris line the roads leading to his compound in Ramallah, where the outer walls have been pulverized by Israeli armor. More important, his political and security apparatuses are in utter disarray, with key aides hobbled or jailed and most police forces destroyed.

For weeks, Arafat has endured extreme humiliation and been forced to rely on the Israelis for food and to seek their permission for his rare visitors. He has been confined to a few rooms inside one aging building, where electricity was sporadic and the toilets regularly backed up.

However, from Arafat's perspective, that he is emerging at all from this punishment is a victory.

Arafat's confinement pitted him against his historical enemy, Ariel Sharon. Two decades ago, Sharon enforced a siege on Arafat and his cronies from the Palestine Liberation Organization in Beirut, where they ran a "state within a state" to launch cross-border attacks into Israel. Under U.S. auspices, Arafat emerged after 88 days and went into exile in Tunisia, where he resurrected his nationalist movement.

"Obviously, he is going to have enormous problems," said one U.S. official. "But he has a few things going for him. That he survived at all is something of a miracle."

Arafat's stature among his own people--where his popularity had plummeted last year--has been enhanced by his confinement. And that's despite his inability to visit stricken areas or to communicate widely with the population.

The compromise to end the siege provides for the Palestinians convicted of killing right-wing Israeli Cabinet minister Rehavam Zeevi to be transferred to a Palestinian prison and placed under U.S. and British guard. The same fate would await Arafat's top financial aide, Fuad Shubaki, who Israel alleges is the Palestinians' top weapons smuggler.

The men had been holed up in the Ramallah compound with Arafat; Israel refused to leave without them, and Arafat refused to give them up.

By accepting the compromise, both Arafat and Sharon submitted to considerable U.S. and British pressure.

Sharon, especially, gave ground, perhaps to balance the hard line he and his government are taking to prevent a United Nations probe into its military operations in the Jenin refugee camp.

Israeli commentators Sunday night portrayed Sharon as the capitulator in the Ramallah standoff. Just days ago, he was so adamant about demanding the extradition of Zeevi's killers that he told Secretary of State Colin L. Powell that he was willing to hold new elections over the matter.

Sharon said he did not trust Arafat--whom he accuses of promoting terrorism--to punish the killers or even to jail them for any period of time, since criminals who go into Palestinian cells often get out rather quickly. An ad hoc Palestinian military court, convening inside Arafat's compound last week, sentenced the men to prison terms ranging from one to 18 years, but Israelis branded the proceedings a sham.

With President Bush literally on the telephone, however, Sharon relented Sunday. In recent weeks, Sharon had repeatedly ignored Bush's pleas to withdraw Israeli troops from the West Bank. Sharon may have decided that another refusal would be one too many.

Sharon pushed the decision through a long and torturous session of his Cabinet on Sunday. Hard-line hawk Avigdor Lieberman was among those who complained.

"The moment we let in foreign troops," Lieberman said, referring to the proposed American and British guards, "we're lost."

Former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Sharon's archrival within the right-wing Likud Party, took to the evening television newscasts to denounce the prime minister's compromise.

"The one question I find hardest to answer," he said, "is, 'Why don't you exile Arafat?' . . . Now Arafat will return to Gaza and be treated like a hero."

But Ephraim Sneh, a Cabinet minister from the more moderate Labor Party, said it made sense to grant Bush's request and to "keep America on our side."

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