Sharon takes aim

Ariel Sharon's objective is the destruction not only of Yasser Arafat, but also of US envoy Anthony Zinni's peace mission, writes Jonathan Cook from Jerusalem
KILL THEM TWICE: Young Palestinians, fleeing for cover from another Israeli attack, cut through a cemetery badly damaged by previous strikes. This most recent instalment of the onslaught killed one boy and injured over 100. Nearby, an Israeli missile hit Palestinian security offices in Gaza on Tuesday, as the campaign to extirpate Arafat and the PA continued -- Israel's surreal bid to eliminate the very forces it insists must crush the Palestinian resistance to occupation before "negotiating" the final surrender (photo: AP)
The banging by Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon on the door for entry to the coalition against terror has grown deafening in the past weeks. After his meeting with President George W. Bush in Washington on Sunday, which coincided with a weekend of the worst violence inflicted on Israel since 1996, he was finally admitted.

Sharon wasted no time in launching his own single- handed war on terrorism on his return from the US the next day. But his target was not Hamas, the group responsible for the weekend's spate of suicide bomb attacks -- two plus a car bomb in the heart of West Jerusalem and another on a bus in Haifa -- that left 26 Israelis dead and at least 275 injured. Instead his goal was the political and personal destruction of the Palestinian Authority leader, Yasser Arafat.

Sharon was writing off not only Arafat but the peace mission of American envoy Anthony Zinni. The US general's chances of making an impact had looked doomed from the moment he arrived last week, as tension soared in the wake of Israel's assassination of Hamas leader Mahmoud Abu Hanoud and the killing of five children in Khan Younis by an Israeli army booby trap.

Unencumbered by American demands for restraint, Sharon began his military campaign a few hours after a security cabinet meeting on Monday. Four Apache helicopters circled over Arafat's Gaza headquarters and launched a symbolic missile strike against part of his air force, three ageing Russian helicopters. Two hours later Israeli F-16s bombed his office in Jenin and the local police station.

Any echoes of last month's American air strikes against the Afghan "air force" and Taliban "military installations" were entirely intentional. Later that day, in a short televised address to the nation, Sharon drove the point home. "Just as the United States is conducting its war against international terror, using all its might against terror, so will we."

And he left no room for doubt about the enemy. "Arafat has made his strategic choices: a strategy of terrorism. In choosing to try and win political accomplishments through murder and in choosing to allow the ruthless killing of innocent civilians, Arafat has chosen the path of terrorism."

The speech was a "targeted killing" of the Palestinian leader's political authority, and a clear sign that the voice of the rightwingers in Sharon's cabinet had finally drowned out their Labour coalition partners, including Foreign Minister Shimon Peres.

The declaration of war on Arafat was a script Sharon had begun writing on 11 September and continued plotting even while Bush and Colin Powell had been mumbling something about a "viable" Palestinian state. The need for action had gained in urgency as Sharon's rival for the Likud leadership, Benyamin Netanyahu, started outbidding the prime minister in the vehemence of his denunciations of Arafat and the PA.

All that had held Sharon back from staging the show down was American opposition and the shaky foundations of his national unity government.

The prime minister has yet to convince his Labour ministers that toppling the Palestinian Authority will serve Israel's interests. Their threatened withdrawal from the cabinet is at the moment the main factor restraining him from dealing the knock-out blow to Arafat.

With cause Peres and hawkish Defence Minister Benjamin Ben Eliezer are worried that without Arafat the occupied territories will descend into chaos, or more worryingly, that the vacuum will be filled by Hamas, currently the most vibrant Palestinian political force. But both are too deeply mired in government policy to extricate themselves easily.

Sharon has, however, freed himself of his other hindrance: the White House. On Sunday Bush gave Sharon approval to cast Arafat in the role of Mullah Mohammed Omar. Just as the American president pledged to hunt down the Taliban leader for harbouring Osama Bin Laden and his Al-Qa'eda network, so Sharon now gave Arafat due warning that he should expect the same ruthless punishment for giving succour to Hamas and Islamic Jihad.

Bush dutifully pushed Hamas to the top of America's most wanted list, describing it as "one of the deadliest terror organisations in the world today." The implications for the Palestinian leader were clear: if he wasn't prepared to fight terror, then, in the president's familiar refrain, he was no different from the terrorists.

The PA responded by rounding up more than 100 Hamas and Islamic Jihad activists, although neither Sharon nor Bush was appeased, referring to the arrested men as "small fry."

Arafat's control over the rival political and military factions inside his Authority has long been brittle and is certain to shatter should he exercise too strong a hand. Now with the PA chairman holed up in his Ramallah headquarters, which Israel bombed on Tuesday without injuring him, the contradictions at the heart of the goals of the new Coalition Against Palestinian Terror were exposed. How was Arafat supposed to regain command when he was personally confined and his security forces were counted among the terrorists?

The point was obligingly underscored when a suicide bomber blew himself up in Jerusalem early yesterday morning close to a hotel where the right-wing internal security minister Uzi Landau was staying. Six people were lightly injured.

The prime minister's spokesman, Ra'anan Gissin, tried to consolidate international support for Israeli attacks by insisting that the war was against the "terror-supporting" PA rather than against the Palestinian people. But as Israeli warplanes struck at sites across the West Bank and Gaza, it was clear that the Palestinian people are once again targeted by Sharon's iron fist.

Incursions by the Israeli army into Palestinian-controlled areas around Nablus and Ramallah and air strikes on Gaza and the West Bank on Tuesday left at least three dead and 150 wounded, including schoolchildren. In another humiliation, Arafat's airstrip in Gaza was ripped up.

There was a lull in the violence yesterday morning but military sources were predicting harsher measures would begin in the next few days.

As to what comes next, Sharon will provide the answer soon. But if America and the Europeans choose to stand by as he "smokes out" Arafat from his cave, they and Israel will soon be confronted by a much bigger question: where is their Northern Alliance?