Arafat risks civil war by ordering dozens of arrests

War on terrorism
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Yasser Arafat pushed ahead with a sweeping crack-down against Palestinian militants as he tried to fend off the most serious challenge to his rule since the signing of the Oslo accords eight years ago.

Officials said his security services had arrested 110 people in house raids in pockets of Palestinian-controlled land in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, as the Palestinian Authority sought desperately to avoid international isolation and political collapse in the backlash of this weekend's triple Hamas suicide bombings in Israel.

It failed to convince Ariel Sharon, Israel's prime minister, who last night announced he would be launching a new "war on terrorism", modelled on the American campaign in the aftermath of 11 September, in which Israel "would use every single means they use".

Freshly returned from the United States, where President Bush gave him the green light to use whatever military response Israel deems necessary, Mr Sharon declared: "The one who kills us, his blood will be shed by us." If Mr Arafat's clamp-down is genuine, rather than a show for the international television cameras then Yasser Arafat's rule is at considerable risk of being fractured by civil war.

Many of Mr Arafat's security forces are as loyal to the militants as they are to his authority, and they have been reluctant to take tough measures against radical activists. Israel's policy of responding to Palestinian attacks by bombing their security headquarters – on show again last night as F-16s jets dropped 2,000lb bombs on Jenin and helicopter gunships fired into the Gaza Strip – has helped harden their views. Some have even helped in guerrilla attacks. And Palestinian grassroots support for Islamic militants, especially Hamas, has rocketed during the intifada, not least because they provided welfare support at a time of increasingly poverty, and the Palestinian Authority has proved inadequate and venal.

There is a widespread belief in the Arab world, shared by some western analysts, that elements in Israel's security establishment have tried to foment civil strife inside the occupied territories to pressure Mr Arafat, or even topple him.

Israel's armed forces are blamed by many for provoking Hamas into renewing murderous attacks against civilians by assassinating one of their senior military leaders, Mahmoud Abu Hanoud, last month when the group had suspended suicide bombings in Israel.

The main targets of Mr Arafat's roundup were activists from Hamas and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad. In the Gaza Strip, Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, the elderly, wheelchair-bound spiritual leader of Hamas, was under house arrest. The director of his office, Ismail Hanieh, was taken into custody as was Ismael Abu Shanab, a senior Hamas political leader in Gaza.

A foretaste of possible internal strife came in the Deheisha refugee camp in Bethlehem when dozens of Palestinian police and intelligence agents, dispatched on a late-night mission to arrest militants, were held back by a large angry crowd, firing Kalashnikovs in the air. The police withdrew, empty-handed after a tense stand-off.

Yesterday, a Hamas spokes-man in Bethlehem, Sheikh Abdul Majid Atta, was freely wandering the streets of the camp, airing his view that the Palestinian Authority's latest round of arrests were a joke. "What is the point of arresting us? I am not the one who is carrying out these attacks. They are already inside Israel. And not the CIA, the Palestinian Authority, America or Israel can stop them."

Unexpectedly, he also said Hamas would seek to prevent any attempt to bring about the collapse of the Palestinian Authority, adding that it had supported the last ceasefire declared by Yasser Arafat after 11 September, but that this was shattered by Israel's assassination policy.

Opposition to Mr Arafat's arrests is clearly strong on the ground. "I am against them." said Mustafa Khmayis, a camp resident, "Sharon isn't giving us anything. The American diplomacy is not serious. They just want cover for their war on Afghanistan. The people are saying to Yasser Arafat that Sharon isn't giving us anything, so why is he arresting us?"

Others agreed. "If the PA arrests people and puts them in jail, we have no guarantee from the Israelis that they won't bombard the prisons," said Omar al-Ajuri, 38, another Deheisha resident, "They have done it before. What will happen then? Do the Americans think about how angry the people will then become? There would be internal conflict – a civil war – which is just what Israel wants."

But Colonel Abdullah Daoud, head of Palestinian intelligence services in Bethlehem, insisted that the crackdown was serious. He admitted that his men "hesitated" when asked to arrest militants. But the PA was against attacks on civilians inside Israel. And his officers did not like being humiliated by those resisting arrest. Meetings had been held with local leaders to explain the situation. There would be more arrests: "No one is immune."

The roundup followed Mr Arafat's declaration of a state of emergency, outlawing all extremist forces, including elements of his own Fatah movement, and particularly those which have committed attacks on Israeli civilians. Yesterday that was followed by an order from the Palestinian Authority banning people from carrying weapons, holding demonstrations without a permit, or using mosques or loud-speakers to disseminate political propaganda. "Whoever does not comply with the ceasefire will be punished," it said, but did not say how.

News of this order had either not reached the demonstrators in Nablus, or was being ignored. They were freely using loudspeakers to denounce the arrests and proclaim support for suicide bombings. At a rally in Gaza angry Hamas supporters fired guns into the air.

Whether the order can be enforced remains highly unlikely. There are many tens of thousands of weapons in the occupied territories, and few Palestinians will be prepared to lay down arms at time when they perceive their society under constant attack from Israel.

Mr Arafat's clampdown will be watched closely by the US, which has long been angered by the Palestinian leader's tendency to promise to act against militants but to do nothing, - freeing some activists shortly after arresting them.

Yesterday, its spokesmen were eager to point out that Mr Arafat now faces a choice between tackling the "terrorists" – breaking up Hamas and Islamic Jihad – or facing political annihilation. This fails to take into account the depth of anti-Israeli sentiment in the occupied territories, or Mr Arafat's status as the figurehead of Palestinian nationalism. He succeeded in bottling up Hamas with a similar wave of arrests in 1996; but that was before the intifada, which has cost 800 Palestinian lives, and a new generation of radicalised activists. There is no guarantee that jailing militants en masse would stop the attacks on Israelis.