Threat to expel Arafat grows after holiday suicide bombing

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The Independent Online

Palestinian security forces were on high alert at Yasser Arafat's Muqata headquarters last night for any Israeli attempt to expel the Palestinian leader, after a horrific suicide bombing in Haifa just before Yom Kippur, the holiest day in the Jewish calendar.

The bombing marked the end of a week that has left the roadmap peace plan personally backed by President George Bush in tatters. Up until the moment when the female suicide bomber pushed her way into the crowded restaurant yesterday, the Israeli authorities were quietly congratulating themselves that their threat to expel Mr Arafat, despite worldwide condemnation, appeared to have worked.

For more than three weeks since the threat was made there had been no suicide bombings and no attacks on civilians inside Israel. Israeli newspapers suggested the Palestinian militants were keen not to give Israel any excuse to carry out its threat. That illusion died yesterday in the ruins of Maxim restaurant and last night Mr Arafat must have been a worried man.

Even if the Israeli cabinet's threats to expel Mr Arafat were only a bluff ­ which is by no means certain ­ the suicide bomber at Maxim called that bluff. Ariel Sharon's government will now come under intense pressure from an Israeli public exhausted by the bombings to carry out its threat and expel Mr Arafat.

One thing that may yet save him is the pressure the US is reported to have been quietly exerting on Israel not to expel or harm the Palestinian leader. The Americans vetoed a UN Security Council resolution condemning the Israeli decision to kick Mr Arafat out, but in private were said to be less than happy with it. George Bush, with his troops sinking into a quagmire in Iraq, does not want chaos here.

Two months ago, in the heat of early August, it was all very different. A unilateral ceasefire declared by Palestinian militants was holding, and Israel and the Palestinian Authority were negotiating how to implement the roadmap. But Israel, accusing the PA of not doing enough to clamp down on militants, resumed its killings of militant leaders. The militants responded with renewed attacks: a suicide bombing on a bus after it left Jerusalem's Western Wall on 19 August left 23 people dead. After that the roadmap was off the agenda.

Weeks later, the Palestinian Prime Minister at the time, Mahmoud Abbas ­ a man the US and Israel both said they could do business with ­ resigned. The peace process, just two months after President Bush got heavily involved, was in worse trouble than ever. After two more suicide bombings, Israel made its threat against Mr Arafat.

The peace process was in further trouble last week, after Israel defied American pressure and announced that it would build a controversial stretch of its "separation fence" deep inside the West Bank, so Jewish settlements could be on the "Israeli" side. A day later, in a violation of the roadmap, which calls for a freeze in settlement construction, Israel announced plans to build 600 more houses in existing settlements.

After yesterday's bombing, and with the US seemingly reluctant to get engaged as it did in the early summer now that the Iraq quagmire is harming President Bush's poll ratings, the prospects for the peace process look grim.

Saturday's suicide bombing was the worst in terms of casualties since the August bus bombing and, like that attack, it had religious resonances. The bus was packed with people who had just left the Wailing Wall, Judaism's holiest site, and the attack came as Israelis were preparing for the Day of Atonement. That will only exacerbate Israeli fury.

A year of suicide attacks

* 21 October 2002: A car packed with explosives pulls up alongside a crowded bus during the rush hour in Tel Aviv and explodes, killing 14 people and wounding 40. Many of the victims were Israeli soldiers.

* 5 January 2003: Two suicide bomb blasts within minutes of each other in Tel Aviv kill 23 and injure more than 100. The attacks target a part of the city where many foreigners live.

* 5 March 2003: After no attacks in two months, a suicide bomb on a packed bus during rush hour in Haifa kills 15 and injures 40.

* 9 August 2003: A Hamas member in disguise mingles with Orthodox Jews near making their way home from daily prayers at the Wailing Wall. Twenty are killed and 100 injured when he detonates his bomb on a bus.

* 9 September 2003: Suicide attacks at a bus stop in Tel Aviv and a café in Jerusalem's German colony area kill 14 and injure more than 30.

Annabel Fallon