Sharon plays into PLO's bloody hands

Israeli offensive backfires » As the appalling toll of lives shows no sign of abating, the advantage is with the PLO leader
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The Independent Online

Truth has never been Yasser Arafat's strong point. He wildly inflates the number of Palestinians – already appallingly large – killed by the Israeli army. He drones on about Israel's use of depleted uranium against his people, though without a shred of proof.

Yet if he were honest, he would be forced to admit that his arch-foe Ariel Sharon – the man who placed him under house arrest for months, who has branded him "irrelevant", and who says he regrets that Israel's forces did not kill him in Beirut two decades ago – has just done him a favour.

As these two ruthless septuagenarian military men jockey for position on the international stage, Mr Arafat has emerged ahead on points – not through his own deeds, but those of his old enemy, the Israeli Prime Minister.

A week ago, after the repellent killing of 11 Israeli civilians by a suicide bomber while they were relaxing in a cafe a few yards from Mr Sharon's west Jerusalem residence, Mr Arafat would have entered the latest round of ceasefire efforts – led by the US envoy, General Anthony Zinni and to be joined this week by the US Vice-President, Dick Cheney – in a poor position.

But Mr Sharon has strengthened the PLO leader's hand – albeit while killing scores of his countrymen. The massive military assault into the West Bank and Gaza Strip, Israel's largest since it illegally occupied the land in 1967, was launched on the pretext of rooting out "terrorists". It was a failure, diplomatically, politically and militarily.

The only "success" is that it has again redefined the military vocabulary of the war. The international community protested vehemently when Israel first raided Palestinian-run areas or used F-16s to bomb civilian areas last year; both have now become routine. This week's invasion caused an outcry; the next one will surely be met with a more muted reaction.

After sending a force of divisional strength with some 150 armoured vehicles into the West Bank town of Ramallah, the Israeli army said it unearthed bomb-making factories and weapons and rounded up wanted militants. But there is no doubt that the majority of the armed men and other activists slipped away.

That much was clear in Bethlehem, where hundreds who have run foul of Israel's Shin Bet security service in the past sought refuge in Manger Square, sleeping in a car park built for the Millennium celebrations beside the Church of the Nativity which marks the place of Christ's birth.

The cruelty of the raids, in which 17 people were killed in Gaza's Jabaliya refugee camp in a matter of a few hours, and the widespread and often deliberate damage, has provided further incentive to young and desperate Palestinians contemplating taking up arms. Such sledgehammer tactics always backfire, say military experts, as it is impossible to eradicate them all – it only takes a few hundred determined guerrillas working amid a sympathetic population to create havoc – and brutality against civilians only expands their ranks.

Abroad, it angered Israel's closest ally, the United States, which, in the customary watered-down language, pronounced the operation to be "unhelpful". More significantly, the Americans provided the Palestinians with another UN Security Council resolution to tuck into its dog-eared dossier of neglected rights – the first explicitly to refer to a state called Palestine, living side-by-side with Israel.

In Israel, the assault failed to bolster Mr Sharon's efforts to preserve his coalition government. Nor did it stop the corrosion of his ratings. The TV footage of thousands of Arab men – lining up for interrogation, blindfolded, handcuffed, with their ID numbers written on their arms – has sickened liberal Israel, reinforcing those who argue that Israel's 34-year occupation is morally corrupting the country.

And the operation did not stop Palestinian attacks: on Thursday, at the height of the invasion, they killed three more soldiers when they took out a Merkava-3 tank with a mine in Gaza. This, the second successful attack on a supposedly invincible fighting machine, dealt another heavy blow to the army's morale.

General Zinni has declared himself to be "optimistic" about his ceasefire efforts. But, with fighting overnight in Hebron and Bethlehem and the real fear of another weekend suicide bombing, the American marine was a member of a small minority.