Arafat tries to stave off Gaza assault with arrests

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The Independent Online

Yasser Arafat scrambled to head off a looming Israeli military assault on the Gaza Strip yesterday by arresting 17 members of the Islamic-nationalist Hamas organisation, masterminds of the latest suicide bombing against Israelis.

The round-up came as the Israeli armed forces called up a fresh batch of reservists – a "limited number", said military sources – increasing speculation that an Israeli attack on Gaza is imminent.

It was one of several manoeuvres by Mr Arafat to head off the invasion and improve his standing in the eyes of the United States at a time when Israel's Ariel Sharon is pressing hard for him to be ousted.

The arrests followed Mr Arafat's television address on Wednesday, which George Bush fell upon with startling enthusiasm, declaring it an "incredibly positive sign".

Speaking in Arabic, the Palestinian leader told viewers that he had ordered his security forces to prevent "terror attacks against Israeli civilians" in the aftermath of a Hamas suicide bombing in a social club near Tel Aviv that killed 16 people – the first such attack for more than three weeks.

Yesterday, Palestinian officials – mindful of Israel's threats of strong retaliation – reportedly took another conciliatory step by ordering local media outlets not to interview Hamas representatives.

Mr Arafat's popularity amongst Palestinians – which Mr Sharon did much to improve by imprisoning him at his West Bank headquarters – has corroded since his release last week. Yesterday's events are likely to accelerate this process, at least among Gaza's body of hardline Islamic-nationalists.

Mr Arafat's domestic position has been battered by his decision to allow six Palestinians – including four guerrillas from the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine – to be imprisoned in Jericho under British and American supervision. In the aftermath of punishing Israeli assaults on the West Bank, some Palestinian moderates have revived calls for an end to suicide attacks and a move towards peaceful popular resistance.

There is Palestinian anger, too, at their "president's" agreement to the exile of 13 militants inside the besieged Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, whose fate was still under negotiation last night.

In Nablus yesterday – where some 70 Palestinians were killed during Israel's military offensive last month – opposition to Mr Arafat was easy to find. Amer Ghanem, 22, an engineering student, said: "The big figures have been plundering since 1994. Instead of supporting the resistance, Arafat dubbed it as acts of terror."

Hassan al-Titi, a lawyer, said: "Arafat should resign. He has committed a grave mistake by describing the resistance as terrorism. And Arafat has failed to get a homeland for us."

Mr Arafat is "between the hammer and the anvil", said a soap factory owner, Jihad Hamdan, 33. "If he condemns terror, his people would not accept that. If he does not, America and Israel will pressure him."

In Gaza, yesterday, Palestinian officials were vowing robust resistance against an Israeli assault. The spiritual leader of Hamas, the frail and wheelchair-bound Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, moved against the twin threat of Palestinian arrest and an Israeli commando raid yesterday by putting three bodyguards outside his Gaza home.

As he weighs up what to do, Mr Sharon will be considering whether it assists his larger goal of getting rid of Mr Arafat, clearly the path for what he hopes will be a more compliant leadership. His critics suspect that is part of a larger goal: Israeli control of all of Jerusalem and most of the West Bank, with broken-up urban pockets of Arab autonomy.

The Americans see no alternative to Mr Arafat but Mr Bush is calling for the Palestinian Authority – which is notoriously corrupt – to make the plethora of security forces more accountable and unified. The CIA director, George Tenet, has been told to come to the region to clean them up.

Mr Bush's suggestions have been met with considerable disdain from Palestinian liberal intellectuals, who blame part of the endemic corruption on the Oslo accords, overseen by the US, with close involvement from the CIA. Moderates have been calling for reforms in Mr Arafat's regime for years, including demanding elections and an independent judiciary. They note that Mr Bush's enthusiasm for change has strict limits: few doubt that, if there were elections tomorrow, much of Gaza would vote for Hamas, seen by the US as terrorists.

One senior Palestinian official said: "We would welcome real reforms, that would be in our national interests. But we are not going to let the Americans impose reforms on us that are only meant to create power centres for certain individuals."

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