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From the August 2001 issue of World Press Review (VOL. 48, No. 8)

Arafat's Unhappy Fighters


Sandro Contenta, The Toronto Star (liberal), Canada, June 5, 2001

A steady flow of burly Palestinian gunmen were summoned to Kamel Hmeid’s home on June 4 and handed their marching orders to stop shooting. Hmeid, the head of Yasser Arafat’s Fatah movement in the Palestinian-controlled Bethlehem district, told the fighters the orders came directly from the Palestinian leader in a telephone call and by fax. “The order from President Arafat is clear: We stop shooting against the Israeli side unless the Israelis attack us first or enter the area we control.”

The fighters didn’t take the orders well; they protested that Israel was still occupying Palestinian land, but in the end they grudgingly accepted. “They’re not happy,” Hmeid said. “They know that the Israelis are just buying time. They want to show the world that they are the victims, and then they will take revenge.” The revenge Palestinians expect is for the suicide bomb attack by a Hamas extremist, who slaughtered 19. [By press time, two teenagers injured in the attack had died, bringing the total to 21.—WPR] Israelis and a tourist outside a popular Tel Aviv dance club.

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has prepared a harsh military retaliation but put it on hold to see whether Arafat is serious about implementing his cease-fire order. Cabinet Minister Danny Naveh said the plan includes hitting installations of Arafat’s Palestinian Authority with air strikes. “There must be long weeks of a total stop to the violence and incitement” by Palestinian media before Israel sits down to discuss other recommendations of a U.S.-led inquiry into the violence, Sharon said. That inquiry, headed by former U.S. Sen. George Mitchell, calls on Arafat to punish those who launch “terrorist operations,” and demands that Israel stop expanding Jewish settlements on occupied land. There has been a sharp drop in armed clashes since Arafat’s edict. But Sharon is under internal pressure to retaliate, and there is widespread dissatisfaction with Arafat’s order among Palestinians. The result is a brittle cease-fire that few expect will hold.

Each side has blamed the other for initiating violence since the start of the Palestinian uprising against Israeli occupation in the West Bank and Gaza Strip eight months ago.

At least 450 Palestinians, 110 Israelis, and 13 Israeli Arabs have been killed in the eight months of fighting.

The factions in the Palestinian uprising, including Fatah and the militant Hamas and Islamic Jihad, agreed to respect Arafat’s cease-fire order, Hmeid said. But they also agreed to continue popular protests against Israel’s occupation, including marches and throwing stones at Israeli soldiers.

Hamas and Islamic Jihad, who are responsible for a wave of car bombs and suicide attacks inside Israel, agreed to the cease-fire because they know “it won’t last long,” Hmeid said, adding Israel won’t agree to freeze all settlement-building and end its occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. But the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, a member of Arafat’s Palestine Liberation Organization umbrella group, said it didn’t back Arafat’s cease-fire. The group’s leader, Abu Ali Mustafa, said in a statement the group would continue the uprising with all its means, including an armed struggle.

Arafat’s order also isn’t being well received in Hebron, a largely Palestinian-controlled town where Israeli soldiers guard about 400 Jewish settlers in the heart of the city.

Majed Maraka, a Fatah official in Hebron, said he interpreted the order as applying to Palestinian Authority security forces, not to Fatah gunmen. “We have been suffering for 70 years, and one single statement cannot change everything,” Maraka said. “For us the question is this: ‘What’s the use of a cease-fire? What do we get in return?’ The Israeli aggression and occupation is still going on.” While Arafat is the undisputed leader of Fatah, he can’t fully control its fighters, Maraka said. He described Arafat’s cease-fire order as “a kind of political maneuver” to satisfy international pressure. Fatah stopped the 1987-93 uprising in favor of the Oslo peace accords but lost popular support after the deals led to Palestinian-controlled enclaves surrounded by Israeli soldiers and expanded Jewish settlements, Maraka said. Fatah won’t make the same mistake twice, he added. Fatah militias, known as the Tanzim, have stopped shooting because everyone is waiting for the Israeli military response to the Tel Aviv bombing, he said. According to Maraka, prolonging the calm depends on whether Israel is ready to make concessions. Otherwise, “the Tanzim, or maybe another faction, could start shooting at any time.”


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