Clashes erupted this week for the first time between radical Palestinians and the Palestinian Authority, a sign political analysts see as a weakening of Palestinian President Yasir Arafat’s hold on his people even as the popularity of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon rises among Israelis.
“It’s a sign of internal stress within the Palestinian Authority,” said Gerald Steinberg, a political science professor at Bar-Ilan University. “It’s been a year since [Israeli-Palestinian peace talks] at Camp David and 10 months since the violence began, and [the Palestinian people] have nothing to show for it. … This was a vote of no-confidence for Arafat in that he was unable to hold the Palestinian Authority together.”
Discord among Palestinians surfaced Monday night when witnesses said hundreds of Palestinians surrounded the Gaza City home of Moussa Arafat, the head of Palestinian military intelligence and Yasir Arafat’s cousin. They threw stones and fired weapons at the house to protest the arrests of four members of the militant Islamic group Hamas and the Popular Resistance Committee, members of Arafat’s Fatah organization who have defied his orders to stop the violence, hand over illegal weapons and disband.
Just a day earlier, Palestinian security forces shot and wounded three militants at a security checkpoint. Reports said the militants were either returning from firing mortar shells at Israeli targets or were about to carry out such an attack. Arafat has ordered an end to such shelling.
Palestinian political analyst Khalil Shikaki was quoted in a wire service report as saying that there is no support among Palestinians for a crackdown against Hamas and that Arafat “will be compelled, with great reluctance, to accept Hamas as a parallel authority.”
Arafat cut short a visit to the United Arab Emirates to deal with the disarray while his spokesmen downplayed the rift.
Meanwhile in Washington, the Palestinians mounted an offensive aimed at dispelling what they say are a series of “myths” that have grown around the failed Camp David summit. This comes as Congress is considering a host of resolutions and bills slamming the Palestinians for their actions since the summit.
Members of Congress received a letter this week from Mahmoud Abbas, secretary general of the Palestine Liberation Organization, and a slick packet of talking points. The objective: a different take on the failure of the Camp David.
“A mythology has developed in the United States and Israel about the failure,” he wrote. “The key elements of this mythology are that the Palestinians were offered virtually all of their demands, made no offers or concessions of their own, and in the end ‘walked away from the best deal they would ever get.’ ”
The package also included copies of a New York Times op-ed by Clinton aide Robert Malley, who insists that Israel deserves much of the blame for the failed summit.
What was striking about the document was its sophistication, say observers. Unlike previous PA appeals to Congress, the tone was calm and reasoned, the style to the point.
Observers said the mailing may show the imprint of Edward Abington, a former U.S. counsel-general in Jerusalem who now serves as a Washington consultant to the PA.
The appeal may have been a model of good PR, but it didn’t stop the House from passing a foreign aid bill late Tuesday that requires the president to determine if Arafat is taking sufficient steps to curb the violence. If the determination is negative, the measure invokes a range of sanctions, including designating PLO groups terrorist organizations and closing the PA office in Washington.
Arafat’s internal troubles come as Sharon remains solidly in control in Israel, according to Steinberg.
“There are no serious discussions to replace him,” he said. “That is another strategy that has failed Arafat — to divide Israelis in the hope of replacing Sharon with a friendlier government or with [former Likud Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu, who would alienate the international community.”
Colette Avital, a Knesset member from the Labor Party, said the polls in Israel show Sharon with support of 80 percent of the country. She said the unity government that includes Shimon Peres, a leading Labor Party dove, as foreign minister has proven successful.
“The prime minister is doing his best to avoid a war,” she said. “Luckily we have avoided a few atrocious acts of terrorism. In a few cases, the people were on their way to commit suicide attacks.”
She was referring to members of terrorist cells who were either arrested or shot and killed in the last week before they could carry out attacks Monday in Haifa and at Monday’s closing ceremonies of the Maccabiah Games in Jerusalem. And Wednesday, Hamas activist Salah Darwazeh was killed when his red Volkswagen was blown apart by Israeli shells as he was driving near a refugee camp in Nablus. Israeli authorities said he was planning a major terror attack inside Israel. They said he was previously involved in terror attacks in Jerusalem and Netanya, as well as the kidnapping and murder of Israeli soldier Nachshon Wachsman.
A leader of Hamas told the French news agency that his movement would avenge the killing of Darwazeh.
Darwazeh is believed to have been on a list of known terrorists Israel wanted the Palestinian Authority to arrest for crimes against Israelis.
This week, the Palestinian Authority presented its own list of more than 50 “Israeli terrorists” — many of them settlers — it asked Israel to arrest for attacks on Palestinians. The PA said if Israel does not comply, it would kill those on the list.
Avital said in an interview before Wednesday’s attack that “there are many more people ready to commit suicidal acts. There have been over 80 since the beginning of the intifada.” And she said it seems that each day another Israeli is killed by Palestinians.
Just this week, the body of 18-year-old Yuri Gushchin was turned over by the Palestinian Authority after it was found in Palestinian-controlled Ramallah. He had been stabbed and shot to death by suspected Palestinian terrorists.
Avital said she assumes that if there is another suicide attack comparable to the disco bombing in Tel Aviv that killed 20 Israelis last month, Israel would have to react.
“The question is, what kind of action,” she said. “Would it be limited or not?
“In the meantime, there is heavy pressure on Sharon from the right. But he is behaving in the correct way.”
There was also international pressure on Sharon this week to permit an international force to monitor the cease-fire. The Palestinians have long advocated the need for such a force to “protect” them from Israeli forces. Israeli has flatly rejected such a force.
“They would become part of the problem, not the solution,” explained Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. “They will see Israel’s response and not the terrorist attacks [that prompted it].”
The deployment of such a force — the Palestinians want 2,000 armed troops — would “appear to be rewarding the violence and giving the Palestinians what they wanted,” Hoenlein added.
Israeli officials said this week that Israel would accept an increased presence of CIA agents, an undisclosed number of whom have been in Israel monitoring cease-fire efforts.
Hoenlein said they would be given an expanded “monitoring role but would not be made neutral observers. … Israel has a special relationship with the United States [that should not be compromised].”
Washington correspondent James D. Besser contributed to this report.