Crisis as Israel bulldoze peace process


SENIOR officials at the Palestine Authority's headquarters here make no secret of their fear that, without an Israeli decision to stop the bulldozers at the Har Homa construction site in Jerusalem, the situation could slip out of control. More riots, or suicide bombings by resurgent Islamist militants, could lead to a military showdown between the Israelis and Mr Yasser Arafat's police force.

"This is a grave crisis," said Mr Ahmed Abdul Rahman, Mr Arafat's "cabinet secretary", one of his oldest companions and an arch dove. "If the Israelis withdrew the bulldozers, the terror would stop immediately. But without that I don't think it will - and nor can Arafat resume the peace talks. It's as simple as that. Jerusalem is bigger than us all."

Like almost everyone else, Mr Abdul Rahman is dismally aware that such a policy reversal from the Israeli Prime Minister, Mr Benjamin Netanyahu, is all but unthinkable and that, if anything, the renewal of Hamas terror makes it even more so.

"For the first time," he said, "I see absolutely no light at the ends of the tunnel. I think that, as things stand, we have lost Jerusalem and the peace process is over. We cannot go on pretending otherwise, playing games with our people, giving false promises that are never delivered.

This was not to say that Mr Arafat was not desperate to keep the process in being. "He is the devil," said Mr Abdul Rahman, who, despite his closeness to him, is well known for his forthright opinions about him. "He is ready to do almost anything to preserve his position and what he has achieved so far."

But, at the moment, that seems to amount to little more than keeping calamity at bay. Saturday's clashes in Hebron took on ominous proportions. Two PA ministers and Mr Arafat's top security henchman in the West Bank, the redoubtable, roughhewn Mr Jubril Rajoub, rushed to the city to rein in the rioters.

In Gaza, the PA intended to rearrest Dr Ibrahim Mukadmeh, the Hamas military chief who had been released from jail a few days before. "But Arafat is weak", said Mr Abdul Rahman, "and every day Netanyahu makes him weaker, he could lose control. As I watched the youths in Hebron, I saw the spark of a new Intifada. They didn't care about our police, who are in a very difficult predicament. Next time they may join the people. We may end up with direct clashes between them and the Israelis. It would be, much worse than in September.

Mr Arafat, he said, needed, "something in his hand" above all a halt to the Har Homa project - to stop the rot. "But he has nothing - except this stupid accusation that he is encouraging terror by releasing Hamas activists."

According to Mr Netanhayu, the release of Dr Mukadmeh - who, like other Hamas activists still in prison, had been severely tortured - was an Arafat "green light" for a resumption of terror.

That charge is dismissed by the PA and Islamist opposition alike. Both say it was the result of pressures exerted on Mr Arafat. These came not just from Hamas, but from the PA's elected council and even from Mr Arafat's own guerrilla organisation Fa'tah, whose local members increasingly resent the way he has brought in privileged and corrupt outsiders to run his authority.

On Friday, Mukadmeh, spoke at a rally in Khan Younis. He declared that the only way to liberate Jerusalem was for mujahideen, with explosives strapped to their waists, to blow themselves up there.

"We could not tolerate this incitement, " said Abdul Rahman. Nonetheless, he added, it was entirely Mr Netanyahu's fault that such incitement finds the kind of popular response it does. "Our people are tired of violence, not out of weakness but out of maturity."

But there is a growing suspicion here that Mr Netanyahu now has more in mind than simply weakening Mr Arafat, to get him to swallow Har Homa and to press all those like Hamas who actively oppose it. The suspicion is that he now seeks to destroy him altogether, along with the peace process. "Since Hebron there have been more and more signals to this effect," said Mr Abdul Rahman. He noted in particular a recent statement by the Israeli Justice Minister, who said, in effect, that if Mr Arafat "exerted force" Israel would either kill him or send him into a new exile, "wandering between Baghdad and Tunis".