How the CIA tried to bully Arafat

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The Independent Online

Gaza is physically so tiny that it has to be a place of contrasts. At midday, I was sitting amid long grass, amid lemon and fig trees, and bushes of pomegranates and gardenia, listening to one of Yasser Arafat's most trusted lieutenants telling me of George Tenet's threats. Indeed, the head of the CIA, so frequent a visitor to Gaza, seemed strangely present because my host knows the CIA boys well.

Gaza is physically so tiny that it has to be a place of contrasts. At midday, I was sitting amid long grass, amid lemon and fig trees, and bushes of pomegranates and gardenia, listening to one of Yasser Arafat's most trusted lieutenants telling me of George Tenet's threats. Indeed, the head of the CIA, so frequent a visitor to Gaza, seemed strangely present because my host knows the CIA boys well.

A couple of hours later, I watched an Israeli soldier run from the border fence and squat in the muddy dunes of Karni to take aim at a boy holding a sling-shot. There was a high-pitched crack, the thwack of a bullet hitting something and the youth was on the ground, two men running towards him with a stretcher.

The rifle cracked again and, just once, I heard the bulletwhizz through the air to my right. Yes, Mr Arafat's man had told me in his orchard, the CIA knew the Israelis were deliberately trying to kill stone-throwers. "We have shown them the statistics and taken them to watch these unequal battles," he said. "Personally, they agree with us that the Israelis are shooting at the upper part of the body."

From the orchard, with its fruit flies and sparrows, to the mud of Karni was perhaps only a mile. And it was odd how the threats and anger of the talks at Camp David fitted in so naturally with the blood and tyre-shrieking ambulances down the road. Mr Arafat's officer did not mince his words. The story had come to him from Mr Arafat, at the very end of the Camp David talks which had brought us all, within weeks, to the catastrophe that now embraces "Palestine" and, some would say, Israel as well. "Tenet had gone to Arafat warning: 'We can make new borders, we can make peoples, we can make new regimes'," he said.

This is what the CIA boss told Mr Arafat at Camp David. And when the Palestinian leader would not make the capitulation that Bill Clinton and the Israeli Prime Minister, Ehud Barak, wanted, Mr Tenet threatened Mr Arafat. He said: "So you will go back to the Middle East alone." He meant that he would not have the support of the CIA. And Mr Arafat replied: "If this is the case, you are most welcome to come to my funeral - but I won't accept your offers."

Around us, the flies and birds moved through the hot trees. Mr Arafat's grey-headed factotum chewed through a mandarin, the juice dribbling down his chin, occasionally taking calls on his mobile phone as his two sons picked olives off a tree behind us.

"You have to understand that what has happened between Shimon Peres [former Israeli prime minister] and Arafat is just an armistice," he said. "The worst is yet to come. We may have a few days of less trouble. But that is all. We know how to start things and we don't know where it will end. But we believe that if it lasts longer, the results will be better. Nobody knows how the mechanism of war develops."

At Karni, Arafat's officer had ordered restraint. A clutch of police captains swept their arms in front of the crowd of youths halfway down the road. "Go back up there," they shouted. There was a momentary movement in the crowd; then the policemen were ignored. Perhaps 400 youths stood on the narrow road and advanced in a mass, almost falling off the edge of the road, offering the Israelis a target they could not miss, seeking the "martyrdom" that the Israelis - and most of us cannot understand. It was an extraordinary scene. A group had unified without a word of command for an understood goal. They wanted to be targets. The Israelis obliged.

A cluster of tear-gas canisters failed to shift the crowd; a single live round did the trick. There were shouts and a stretcher bobbing through the screaming youths and an ambulance driving through the dust for the Shifa Hospital.

Before dusk, an armoured Israeli convoy thundered down the road from the Jewish settlement of Nitzarim, ordering motorists at gunpoint to turn round. The road runs through Palestinian Gaza and the Israelis - note, they must not be called "occupiers" - were trying to force a passage down to the border through Karni. Under the terms of the Oslo Agreement, the Israelis can use this route with a Palestinian escort. But there was no Oslo, and no escort.

But then they stopped and I realised that they were waiting for Palestinian Authority guarantees of safety before daring to move down the road to the Israeli border. And I knew that Mr Arafat's man in the orchard would be on his mobile phone, deciding whether or not it was safe for the occupiers to go home. George Tenet should have been with us at that hour.

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