June 4, 2001
There is now a clear and imminent danger that the fuse lit by Yassir Arafat last
September will touch off an explosion.
That will be terrible for Israel, dangerous for the Middle East – and
disastrous for Palestinians. Friday night’s suicide bomb attack on the Pasha
nightclub in Tel Aviv was exceptionally horrendous and exceptionally menacing;
but it was not otherwise exceptional.
Suicide bombings are a frequent and integral part of the increasingly
deadly arsenal deployed by organisations that operate openly in the areas
governed by the Palestinian Authority. Israel has to react. How deadly its
reaction will be depends on what Mr Arafat does in the next few hours – what
he does, not merely what he indicates he is ready to do.
The Palestinian leader cannot evade his heavy responsibility for this outrage,
and for others. The “leadership of the Palestinian uprising”, which met briefly in
Gaza yesterday, is the nearest thing there is to organised action in his chaotic
administration. Unofficial it may theoretically be, but it includes all 12 factions
of the Palestine Liberation Organisation and is co-ordinated by powerful figures
in his Fatah movement; they work hand in glove with Hamas and Islamic Jihad,
the other members of the “leadership”, groups which are avowedly dedicated to
the extinction of Israel.
At the core of what has become a deadly, destructive, covert war are
indicted or convicted terrorists whom he released from custody last September,
at the start of the latest Palestinian uprising.
Mr Arafat may not give these men of violence express orders; he has, at long
last, had the grace (or sense of self-preservation) to condemn this particular
attack. But he knows who they are; and they are seen, by Palestinians and
Israelis alike, to be doing his work.
And, in his incessant globe-trotting, Mr Arafat has made his goal clear; it
is to drag Israel towards all-out war and thus force the outside world to
intervene – preferably by an international “protective” occupation of the West
Bank and Gaza – to douse the flames. That was his explicit request last week to
the European Union, which rightly gave him a dusty answer.
Self-preservation has also now prompted Mr Arafat to say what he should have
said back on May 22, and promise to match the unilateral ceasefire instituted
by Israel on that date. Ariel Sharon’s Government has told him he has only “one
or two days” to prove that he means it. It is understandably sceptical. As late
as last Friday, when an exasperated Colin Powell telephoned him to insist that
he make “a 100 per cent effort” to control his fighters and police, he refused
Washington’s demand for a reciprocal ceasefire.
If he has changed his mind, he could have proved it yesterday by arresting the
intifada leaders who, with contempt for orders to the Palestinian security forces
to give “urgent and immediate effect” to the ceasefire, announced that they
would go on fighting.
Above all, Israel is angrily mindful that the Pasha bombing, the bloodiest
attack on civilians since another suicide bomber destroyed a bus in Jerusalem in
1996, came at the end of a fortnight in which Palestinians had exploited
cynically the restraints imposed on Israeli forces to intensify their mortar and
machinegun attacks on Israeli targets.
As they buried the remains of 19 dismembered and disfigured teenagers
yesterday, Israelis cannot but have asked themselves what value is left in a
peace process that, they had told themselves, would make life safer for their
children. Tel Aviv is the heartland of Israeli liberalism. The Israeli peace
movement has been wounded to the quick. A card left outside the club read
simply: “We ask for peace. They ask for blood.”
That blood is on Mr Arafat’s hands. A cat with nine lives, he has used up eight
of them. His way has ever been to promise his people the moon, spurn every
realistic chance at statehood and use his failures to fan hatred of Israel. He will
His obduracy has too often been feted, not condemned, by Western as
well as Arab governments. They must tell him flatly that the game is up.