The importance of Arafat
Yesterday Israeli tanks, armoured cars and bulldozers were moving into Palestinian towns and to Ramallah, where the Palestinian Liberation Organisation chief, Yasser Arafat, has been virtually held captive. The 18 months of bloody violence appeared to be reaching a climax with Israel Prime Minister Ariel Sharon on Sunday declaring an uncompromising war to root out the savages .With the Israelis claiming that one man, Yasser Arafat, is responsible for the present situation, and the nation agitated after the weekend killings by suicide bombers, foreign leaders have expressed fears about the safety of Arafat.
On Sunday, world leaders, including those of China, France, Germany, Japan and many Arab states, made appeals to Israeli leaders to show restraint. Earlier, the UN Security Council called upon Israel to withdraw troops from Palestinian cities. Israel firmly believes that Yasser Arafat can stop the violence that is being unleashed by the Palestinians.
On Sunday, Israels Ambassador to Sri Lanka (resident in Bangkok), Mr. David Matnai, who was on a visit to Colombo told the Editor of The Island that if Yasser Arafat wanted to stop violence he could do so by appealing to the Palestinians, which has not been done. When it was pointed out that Arafat was a moderate among Palestinians leaders, Matnai replied that Arafat said one thing while speaking in English and quite another thing in Arabic.
The consensus among foreign observers even western correspondents who are favourable to Israel is that if Arafat is removed from the scene, he would be replaced by those from extremist groups such as the Hamas, Islamic Jihad or the Al Aqsa Brigades, who are known for their extremism and violence. This could undoubtedly lead to the worsening of the situation.
The western world knows Arafat very well. Commencing from the heady days of PLO terrorism in the 1960s and 70s, both, Arafat the leader, as well as the organisation, has mellowed very much. Gone are the days when the young Arafat told the United Nations: I have come with a gun in one hand and an olive branch in the other. The PLO and radical Arab states lost much of their power and influence as the economy of the Soviet Union that had been their benefactor crumbled. And the PLO, which vowed not to rest till the last Jew was thrown into the Mediterranean, in 1993 recognised the right of the state of Israel to exist and Israel recognised the PLO as the representative of the Palestinians.
In 1993 there was the historic rapprochement when Yasser Arafat shook hands with Israeli Prime Minister Yitzak Rabin. Both sides signed an agreement for limited Palestinian self-rule in the Gaza and the West Bank. The world thought that the near-two millennium old enmity between the Jews and the Arabs was coming to an end, but that was not to be as Israeli settlements were put up in areas recognised as Palestinian territory.
When Israelis accuse Palestinians of terrorism today, they are undoubtedly correct. Widespread use of suicide bombers on the civilian population has severely destabilised Israeli society and driven its leaders to a point of frenzy. Palestinians in turn accuse Israel of state terrorism. The arguments are all too familiar to countries that operate within a democratic framework and have to cope with internal insurrections. Kashmir, Israel, Sri Lanka, Chechnya have parallel situations although they are not essentially the same. Israel, perhaps, inspired by American President George Bushs way of taking on terrorists is deploying all its military might to bring Palestinians to their knees. But fighting an indigenous population numbering millions is different to that of fighting a clandestine sparsely spread international organisation.
This conflict could well ignite the volatile Middle East The United States and Iraq are once again dangerously close to war. But the United States has given quite clear indications that it does not want the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to escalate. And the United States is the only country that can directly influence the decisions of Israel. US attempts at mediation in the past few weeks have not borne fruit, but if it does crack the whip both Israel and the PLO could be made to fall in line.
A commentator writing to The Daily Telegraph ( see page 6) points out that as far back as in 1982, when Ariel Sharon threw out Arafat from Beirut, he wanted him replaced by another leader but eleven years later, in 1983, it was Arafat who signed the Oslo Accords. Arafat has displayed remarkable resilience.
Even though Israelis may want Arafat replaced by one amenable to them, in situations like this, a replacement is likely to be one far more radical than the incumbent and certainly not a puppet.
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