Yasser Arafat, who was waiting for Israel to act on its decision to pull back from the West Bank, is facing an internal challenge from dozens of militants who declared a hunger strike in protest over their imprisonment.
The prisoners, mostly members of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), were jailed by Mr Arafat's security forces under pressure from the international community, which is urging him to crack down on militants or face Israeli reprisals.
Israel's raids into Palestinian-controlled parts of the West Bank – involving six towns and a massive military swoop on a small village – came after the PFLP assassinated Rechavam Zeevi, Israel's hard-right Tourism minister. Israel has been pressing Mr Arafat to arrest PFLP activists.
Abdel-Rahim Mallouh, a PFLP official, condemned the arrests as "political" – a view that is certain to be shared by many Palestinians angered by Mr Arafat's tactics, particularly his pro-American stance, in the aftermath of 11 September.
International diplomats have recently warned that his Palestinian Authority could easily topple under the weight of internal opposition and Israeli military pressure.
Israeli ministers yesterday said that the Prime Minister, Ariel Sharon, will soon begin pulling back tanks and troops after "incursions" that have infuriated the US and led to the killing by the Israeli army of more than 45 Palestinians. But the scale and timing of the withdrawal remained unclear.
Israeli and Palestinian security officials met yesterday to discuss the withdrawal, amid warnings that the Israelis will reverse the decision if they conclude that Yasser Arafat has not met their stringent security demands.
The risk that the pull-out could be torpedoed by more violence was underlined early yesterday in the Gaza Strip, where Israeli soldiers shot dead three armed guerrillas, from the Islamic-nationalist Hamas group, attempting to infiltrate a Jewish settlement. Troops also shot and killed a Bedouin Arab who – according to the army – drove a tractor through to the fence separating the strip from Israel.
Shimon Peres, the Israeli Foreign Minister, said that Israel planned to propose withdrawing its forces from Bethlehem and neighbouring Beit Jala, "provided the Palestinians will guarantee there will be a ceasefire and security arrangements". He said that if this succeeded, Israel would then pull back from Palestinian-run areas in other West Bank towns. Israel's raid into Bethlehem has been a particular cause of international concern because of the city's importance to the Christian world. Mr Peres's remarks will have been greeted with wary relief in Washington, which signalled its annoyance with Israel by taking the rare step on Thursday of joining in a UN Security Council statement calling for the immediate removal of all Israeli forces from Palestinian-ruled areas.
Israeli officials have defiantly defended the raids – the largest into Palestinian-run "Area A" since the start of the intifada – as a successful anti-terror operation. The Israeli government issued a statement claiming to have arrested 42 "terrorists", but making no mention of more than 50 Palestinians – many of them civilians – who were killed in the operation. Nor did it record the fact that Israel's army did not manage to arrest two of the men it accuses of murdering the Tourism minister.
However, Israel has demonstrated that it is willing to face down international criticism – even from the US – and enter Palestinian-run areas whenever it wants to pile the pressure on Mr Arafat and his fragile Palestinian Authority. More such raids can be expected.Reuse content