A Deadly Passover... And A State Of Siege

Darkness fell inside Yasir Arafat's offices. Dozens of his guards, his cronies and members of his Palestinian government-that-used-to-be lit candles and scrounged for cigarettes, listening to Israeli guns and bulldozers demolishing the buildings around them. Often their faces were lit by the dim glow of cell-phone screens. Arafat himself gave a stream of interviews, saying he was ready to die a martyr. But as the day and the night thundered on, it was clear Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon had another fate in mind for the man he's fought so bitterly for so long. Months ago Sharon declared Arafat "irrelevant" and confined him to his Ramallah headquarters surrounded by tanks. Now, in the aftermath of another horrific suicide bombing that killed 22 civilians celebrating Passover, Sharon declared Arafat "an enemy" and vowed to "isolate" him, possibly even "expel" him. Certainly, he would humiliate him, as if the 74-year-old Sharon thought a martyr's death was too good for the watery-eyed, quivering, 72-year-old chairman of the Palestinian Authority.

Such is their blood feud. Despite more than 10 years of negotiations between successive Israeli governments and Arafat, Sharon never could accept him as a partner in peace, never could bring himself to shake the Palestinian's hand. Now the two are squared off in a battle so intense and so personal it threatens the future of all Israelis and Palestinians. The leaders of the Arab world are watching the scene, too, torn between sinister admiration for Arafat's people striking fear into the heart of Israel, and desperation at the prospect that the showdown will shake their own increasingly decrepit regimes. They're hoping, or perhaps dreaming, that a joint peace proposal made at a summit in Beirut last week will open the way to new diplomatic initiatives at the United Nations. The Bush administration, which tried for a year to steer clear of this thankless feud, wanted its post-September 11 war to be fought on other battlegrounds. But it finds itself, now, dragged into the middle of the Arafat-Sharon showdown.

Slowly the screens of the cell phones faded to black as the batteries died. The tremulous anger of Arafat's voice fell silent on the satellite channels. But while Arafat languished in the dark, others paid the ultimate price in this confrontation. As Israeli tanks rumbled into Ramallah, shops were shuttered and residents deserted the streets. In the blocks surrounding the compound, Palestinian militiamen staged a last stand. As one fighter tried to take out an Israeli sniper, his cell phone rang incessantly. He refused to answer, afraid it was his mother and she'd be worried. Minutes later he was dead, his neck pierced by the sniper's bullet. At Ramallah Hospital, the bloody corpses of a 21-year-old woman and an old man lay on slabs in the mortuary alongside two young fighters. By late Saturday, rumors circulated--and were denied--that the Israelis planned to rush Arafat and his armed men inside the compound.

And yet the suicide bombings did not stop. Within hours of the Israeli assault an 18-year-old girl blew herself up, killing two and injuring 20 others in a crowded south Jerusalem neighborhood. On Saturday, another bomber set himself off in a Tel Aviv cafe, wounding at least 29 people. As Washington called on Arafat to bring an end to the violence from his besieged rooms in a crumbling building, there was little reason to believe he could, even if he would.

"It's like living in a Greek tragedy where the worst becomes inevitable," said Nabil Shaath, one of the Palestinian Authority's most articulate and moderate voices. "It's almost as if it's destiny. America can stop all of that--and only America can stop all of that." But how? After trying to avoid the Mideast morass, the Bush administration waded in only when it was clear that its goal of removing Saddam Hussein--with at least the private support of Arab regimes--was endangered by Arab anger at the Palestinians' plight. Last week the administration sent conflicting signals. Midweek, Secretary of State Colin Powell blamed "terrorism" for bringing peace talks to a halt. Then in the predawn hours on Saturday, Washington supported a U.N. resolution demanding that Israel pull out of Palestinian areas--hours before Bush said from his Crawford, Texas, ranch that Arafat "can do a lot more" to prevent attacks against Israelis. Clearly, Bush has yet to find a workable balance between the old adversaries. And his challenge couldn't be greater.

It's hard to imagine two figures more hellbent on confrontation than Sharon and Arafat. The bluff Sharon was a general known for lightning action against Arab troops on the battlefield for three decades; he was held indirectly responsible by an Israeli investigation into the 1982 massacre of more than 800 Palestinian civilians in Beirut. Arafat, the wily, stubble-faced guerrilla, was the best-known face of international terror in the 1970s and 1980s. He sent operatives to carry notorious attacks, including the murder of Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics. Both men are quick to present their people as victims and themselves as victors. Today Arafat blames Sharon for starting the last year and a half of violence with a provocative visit to the holiest Muslim site in Jerusalem. Sharon claims Arafat planned all along to walk away from the peace table and launch a new guerrilla war.

If so, Arafat might just believe he's winning, even from the remains of his Ramallah headquarters. Throughout the Arab world, there's an impression that Sharon's the man who's cornered; that Israel has been frightened as never before by these suicide attacks. Continuing his tradition of alternating between talk of peace when it suits his agenda--which includes staying in power at the very top--and resorting to violence, Arafat is supporting a new organization, the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, that is carrying out many of the bombings. Only now the test of wills between the Palestinian leader and Sharon has become a test of endurance and fear between their peoples, between their cultures. "The Palestinian people are launching the war of Arab destiny," said Arafat associate Farouk Qaddoumi, itemizing the way Israel "lost stability and security; psychological problems spread, and unemployment and emigration rose."

In a few horrible days the world saw how quickly the duel between Arafat and Sharon can move from farce to hope to tragedy. Arab leaders were meeting in Beirut to endorse a Saudi peace plan. If Israel would withdraw from the territories occupied in 1967, negotiate the return or compensation of Palestinian refugees and live side by side with a Palestinian state that had Jerusalem as its capital, then every Arab country promised peace and "normal relations." The initiative offered a glimmer of hope, and an implicit threat. "The Israeli people have a right to live in peace if they respond to conditions of peace," said Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal. But Sharon wouldn't let Arafat attend the summit. If Arafat left the West Bank, he made clear, the Palestinian leader might not be allowed to return.

Meanwhile, U.S. envoy Anthony Zinni scrambled to patch together a ceasefire that might halt--for days or weeks at least--the ongoing carnage. Zinni offered a document bridging Arafat's proposals and Sharon's. NEWSWEEK has learned it was "one sentence away" from being signed: a sentence the Palestinians demanded linking the truce to future political negotiations. But Sharon wouldn't accept any language that seemed to put a price on the end of suicide bombings, and in the end neither would Washington.

That evening, at the coastal town of Netanya, as guests gathered to eat the Seder meal, a man with a suitcase walked past a guard, ran into the midst of the crowd--and detonated. The radical Islamic movement Hamas claimed responsibility, and it has a long history of opposing Arafat. But Sharon blamed his old enemy. Arafat issued a pro forma condemnation of the atrocity, and called quickly for a unilateral ceasefire. But Sharon was ready to make his move--and had been for a long time.

Many Israelis and Palestinians see a parallel with events 20 years ago. Then, Arafat and his fighters were holed up among hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees in southern Lebanon and Beirut. Another group, under the radical leader Abu Nidal, attempted to assassinate the Israeli ambassador in London. Never mind that Abu Nidal was a sworn enemy of Arafat's. Sharon, then Israel's Defense minister, set out to eliminate Arafat and his men. He launched an invasion of Lebanon and laid siege to Beirut. The United States and the international community intervened to let Arafat and his fighters sail away to Tunisia. During the Israeli occupation of Lebanon, Christian militias allied with Israel slaughtered civilians in the camps of Sabra and Shatila. "After that, [Sharon] was hounded out of Israeli politics for 18 years," says Shaath. "But Arafat survived to come back to Palestine... Many times it seems Sharon is still fighting the 1982 war."

It's a common refrain. "Hasn't the time come for you to do to Arafat what you wanted to do during the 1982 Lebanon war?" the daily Maariv asked Sharon early last week. "Why don't you eliminate him now?" Sharon didn't hesitate. He would "expel him" this time, he said. "There is no choice." Sharon told the daily Yediot Ahronot "there was one commitment I took on myself which was a mistake--the commitment not to harm Arafat. There was not a single meeting with U.S. President George W. Bush--from the very first one we had--that the Americans didn't raise the question. We weren't talking about physical harm--but [Arafat's] packing a suitcase and getting out of here. Perhaps I should have told the American at some point that this was a commitment I could no longer keep."

Ever one to telegraph his punches, the Israeli prime minister bragged about the way he'd been able to increase pressure on the Palestinian leader by moving into the territory, Area A, that earlier agreements had put under Arafat's control. "You forget what things were like at the beginning," Sharon told Yediot. "When we went 300 meters into Area A, the whole world was shocked. Imagine what would have happened had we done then what we are doing now." Last month Sharon moved 20,000 troops into Area A, supposedly to clean out terrorist infrastructure. "I got the whole world used to these incursions," said Sharon. "Everyone understands us."

Sharon says this new operation in Ramallah is something less than war. The stated aim is to take the steps against suspects that Arafat would not take, then withdraw at some undefined time when that job is done. But for Israeli soldiers in the field, the tightened siege of Arafat is the only clear goal. "No real decisions have been made, no targets defined," one senior officer told NEWSWEEK. "I don't even know myself what to tell my soldiers. Short term, yes. But long term? What am I supposed to tell them? What's the point of it?"

From a hotel rooftop on the outskirts of the city early Friday morning, NEWSWEEK watched as a long column of Israeli tanks, armored personnel carriers and bulldozers rumbled through the deserted streets to Arafat's compound. Throughout the day the only sounds in the city were bursts of automatic-weapons fire, mortar blasts and the sirens of Red Crescent ambulances. At a crossroads guarded by a Merkava tank, a man cried out through the bars of a ground-floor window, begging for bread to feed his trapped family. Seven people died, including one of Arafat's bodyguards, and dozens more were injured in fierce fighting inside the headquarters and in the surrounding neighborhood. By last Saturday Israel was expanding the occupation, arresting and questioning thousands of male Palestinians between 15 and 45. Defense Ministry spokesman Yarden Vatikai said that his government wanted to negotiate peace, but that the Army's actions were necessary. "We don't think there is a solution by military means," he said. "But we have to protect our own people and lower the flames."

The immediate impact is the opposite. At the Duheishe refugee camp in Bethlehem, scores of mourners gathered Friday evening in the tenement apartment where Ayat Akhras, 18, had quietly prepared for martyrdom. Before she blew herself up at a Jerusalem supermarket that morning, Akhras had been preparing to graduate with honors from a Bethlehem high school and was engaged to be married in June. But several of her relatives had been killed in Gaza during the intifada; and Akhras became visibly shaken, her brother says, after a neighbor and close friend was shot dead while playing in his living room with his daughter during Israel's invasion of the camp last month. Sometime during the last two weeks, relatives believe, she was recruited for her suicide mission by militants from the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades. Trembling as he clutched a studio photograph of his daughter, Samir Akhras appeared at a loss to comprehend her final act. "There was no reason for her to do this. I supplied her with everything possible to give her a decent life," he said.

But a cousin said that Duheishe camp had become a breeding ground for would-be suicide bombers--and predicted that they would be unleashed if any harm came to Arafat. And even if it doesn't, Sharon's cornering of his old nemesis is unlikely to lead to security for Israel. The Palestinians are exploiting suicide bombers to bloodier effect than ever. "Our only weapons against Sharon are our blood and our bodies," said Akhras's cousin. And there is every sign that thousands of young Palestinians will be willing to use them until Israel withdraws from the territories, no matter how harsh the crackdown. That presents a formidable quandary for Israel, but also for its American allies, its Arab adversaries, and anyone else interested in achieving a ceasefire--and a lasting peace.

Yet as the first video was smuggled out of Arafat's besieged offices, it showed the flashlit face of the old guerrilla looking remarkably relaxed. Sharon, too, appeared confident before the press. The mantle of peacemaker never sat easily on either man's shoulders. The old general ordering his tanks into action, the old guerrilla holed up under siege, are back in a world they know.