Yasir Arafat Is a Traitor

For two days, emissaries from Yasir Arafat shuttled in and out of a modest compound on a back alley in Gaza City. Arafat, who was penned up by Israeli tanks in his own headquarters on the West Bank, needed help from Sheik Ahmed Yassin, spiritual leader of the radical Hamas movement. Under intense international pressure, Arafat was urging Hamas to stop its suicide bombings inside Israel and its mortar attacks on Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Gaza. And unlike a similar arrangement hashed out with Hamas in secret in 1996, this time Arafat wanted the terms of the stand-down to be announced in public. The negotiations with Yassin, a deaf and paralyzed cleric, went on as Arafat's police rounded up militants and skirmished with Hamas supporters in the streets of Gaza. Finally Yassin weakly nodded his consent. Hamas announced "the halting of martyrdom operations inside the occupied lands of 1948 and the halting of the firing of mortar shells until further notice." Islamic Jihad, the other main terror group, said it, too, would suspend attacks "for the national interest."

It was a victory Arafat desperately needed. Since a wave of suicide bombings killed 25 Israelis in Jerusalem and Haifa in early December, the Palestinian leader has been under mounting pressure to quell the Islamic radicals--or face the dismantling of his Palestinian Authority, and his own possible destruction. Yet while Yassin's capitulation put a few patches on Arafat's credibility as a peacemaker, the ceasefire was dangerously circumscribed. Both Islamic Jihad and Hamas refused to rule out attacks against Israelis in the West Bank and Gaza. "We will fight against Israel inside the occupied territories," Sheik Hassan Yousef, a Hamas spokesman in Ramallah, told NEWSWEEK. "We have the right to defend ourselves in our land." Some members of the Israeli government dismissed the Hamas communique as a cynical ploy. "What's positive? That they stop terror activities in one place, but keep murdering women and children somewhere else?" said Raanan Gissin, an adviser to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.

Arafat's biggest challenge may be quelling the rage of the Islamic militants, frustrated by 15 months of futile struggle and enraged by the arrests of more than 200 radicals in recent weeks. After the release of the Hamas communique, new clashes between the militants and police turned into the worst incidence of Palestinian-on-Palestinian violence in years. In northern Gaza, thousands of angry locals gathered in the Jabalya refugee camp to attend the funeral of a 17-year-old boy slain by Palestinian police during a sweep of militants the day before. The procession turned into a bloody anti-Arafat protest. Mobs marched on police headquarters in Jabalya, demanding the release of Hamas and Islamic Jihad detainees and chanting: "Arafat is a traitor." Gunmen fired on the headquarters, smashed police cars and set government buildings on fire. Police snipers shot back, killing six people.

Meanwhile, crowds protecting the house of Abdul Aziz Rantisi, one of the most prominent Hamas leaders in Gaza, twice fought off attempts to arrest him. Rantisi refused to surrender to the police. "Why should I turn myself in? I have done nothing," he told NEWSWEEK hours before police cut his phone lines. "They'll have to carry me to my grave first." There were reports that Arafat might declare a moratorium on arrests, a move certain to tamp down protests--but also likely to anger Israel, which says that Arafat has arrested only a handful of 33 militants on its most-wanted list.

Despite the militants, many Palestinians seem to feel sympathy for their beleaguered president. Thousands of members of his political party, Fatah, marched through Gaza to pledge their support for him. And although Hamas has consistently proved to be more popular than Arafat in opinion polls in recent months, many Palestinians seemed to rally behind him after his televised speech on Dec. 16 calling for a unilateral ceasefire. "I respect Hamas," said Ibrahim, a falafel-shop owner in Ramallah, "but they cannot run the show as long as the president is around." A consensus seems to have formed among the majority of Palestinians that if Arafat were forced from power, any of the likely alternatives--including a Hamas-led government or civil war--would be far worse.

Can the ceasefire take hold? Palestinian officials insist that Israel must start making some concessions of its own to demonstrate its good faith. "The ball is in the Israeli court to stop all acts of aggression, to stop its policy of assassinations, to lift the closure [of Israel's borders to Palestinian workers] and to return to the negotiating table," said Palestinian chief negotiator Saeb Erakat. But Israeli officials say that the Islamic militants will have to prove their sincerity in order to ease the tough restrictions in the territories. The relatively dovish Foreign Minister Shimon Peres said the military would continue to target "ticking time bombs" suspected of planning acts of terror inside Israel. "The test [of the Hamas pledge] is in the results," he said. After 15 months of bitterness and bloodshed, both sides seem desperate for a timeout--and as distrustful of each other as ever.