Arafat Opens Council Amid Israeli Blockade


Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, vowing to fight "the enemies of peace," inaugurated the newly elected Palestinian legislative council on Thursday while Israeli soldiers continued their blockade of the Palestinian-ruled territories.

The swearing-in of the Palestinians' first popularly elected legislature was meant to be a happy landmark on the road to self-determination. Instead, it was a subdued event overshadowed by the fact that suicide bombers have brought Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking to the brink of collapse.

Arafat issued his usual nationalist call for Palestinian statehood with a capital in Jerusalem, although not with his usual vigor. His face was drawn and uncharacteristically grim.

"We will not allow violence or terrorism to stop this peace process," Arafat told the 88-member council and a corps of diplomats.

In contrast to international condemnation of the bombings, the discourse of Arafat and the council members was restrained. The Palestinian leadership criticized the Islamic militants' actions as a threat to Palestinian interests but did not issue the kind of blanket condemnation that Israelis surely would have liked.

By convening the council on schedule, Arafat was trying to reestablish some momentum in the peace process. The session set the clock running on the two-month deadline Arafat has under the peace agreement to get his Palestine Liberation Organization to change its charter calling for the destruction of Israel.

After four bombers killed themselves and 57 others in less than two weeks, Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres threatened to delay this month's scheduled pullout of Israeli troops from parts of the West Bank city of Hebron unless Arafat keeps his commitment to change the charter.

Arafat insists he will, but PLO members on the council were less convinced.

"The charter is not my concern right now," Salah Tamari, a representative of Bethlehem, said in frustration. "My concern is the siege by Israel around our cities and villages."

Arafat also criticized the Israeli lockup of the West Bank and Gaza Strip that has kept Palestinian workers from going to their jobs in Israel and basic foods from entering Palestinian territory.

"Closure and collective punishment are not the solution" to fighting extremists, Arafat said to the council members, many of whom had been forced to get Israeli permits to travel from the West Bank to Gaza.

The Peres government is using the closure to give Israelis a sense of security and also to pressure Arafat into doing what Israel itself never did while occupying Gaza and the West Bank: break the military and political infrastructure of the militant Islamic group Hamas, which has claimed responsibility for the bombings.

In the past 10 days, Arafat has arrested 400 suspected Hamas collaborators, including five of 13 military leaders on Israel's most-wanted list. Arafat also approved a life sentence with hard labor for Mohammed abu Wardeh, the man accused of recruiting three of the four suicide bombers.

Arafat's security forces raided 41 mosques and Islamic University in Gaza--a Hamas stronghold--confiscating weapons, explosives, literature advocating violence against Israel and a training video for would-be suicide bombers. The preachers, or imams, of several Hamas-run mosques were replaced and the mosques put under the Palestinian Authority's religion ministry.

But the Israeli government wants more. The Israelis say they are not convinced that Arafat has made a strategic decision to snuff out Hamas for good, since he has conducted similar sweeps against Hamas in the past and later let the militants go.

This time, Israeli military officials want Arafat to nab all of the leaders of the Iziddin al-Qassam military wing of Hamas and threaten to do it themselves if he does not. Moreover, they want Arafat to take on Hamas political leaders and to take away Hamas' social infrastructure, its schools, health care centers and orphanages as well as mosques.

These are the real recruitment depots, an Israeli military source said, the places where Hamas preaches violence against Israel and inspires youths to go out and blow themselves up in the name of building an Islamic state in Gaza, the West Bank and Israel itself.

Israel rejects the approach that Arafat has taken since his return to Gaza in 1994 of negotiating with Hamas political leaders while trying to divide and marginalize its military wing--a policy that one Israeli military source described as "killing me softly."

But the divisions in Hamas that have surfaced partly as a result of Arafat's policy are over tactics, military sources say, not over the shared goal of wiping out Israel.

"It is not good enough. The terror groups were not affected," said an Israeli military source who asked not to be identified. "The more he [Arafat] feels under pressure, the more he is going to do what he is asked."

Palestinian political and military observers believe the recent bombings have convinced Arafat to take on the Hamas military wing. In the past, they say, he feared that this would sabotage his efforts to win over the political leaders and that it could provoke a popular uprising.

Palestinian observers do not agree, however, that Arafat should go after the social and political infrastructure of Hamas. To do so, they say, would be to make enemies where Arafat already had made friends, to feed the ranks of Hamas when they had been diminishing.

That view seemed to be confirmed by Imad Falougi, a former Hamas leader who was elected to the council on Arafat's Fatah organization slate. He criticized Arafat's raid on Islamic University and mosques.

"A distinction needs to be made here between Islamic institutions and Hamas," Falougi said.

Tamari of Bethlehem directed his anger at the Israelis. "You don't just push a button and eliminate terrorism," he said.

Tamari said the reason Arafat was able to pursue the Hamas military wing now was because the extremists had lost political support over the suicide bombings. But he said that a prolonged closure and economic sanctions will shift anger away from Hamas and onto the Israelis.

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