The Magazine

The PLO vs. the Christians

First children, now Christians are to be sacrificed in Arafat's war

Dec 18, 2000, Vol. 6, No. 14 • By TOM ROSE
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ARAFAT'S WAR against Israel has shattered nearly as many old certainties as lives. One of the most seemingly solid of the certainties was that no one could attack Israel's capital and live to tell the tale. Yet what ten weeks ago was both unthinkable and intolerable has now become a matter of everyday routine.

Just before dusk each night, members of the Tanzim, Yasser Arafat's private militia, invade the Christian Arab village of Beit Jalla. These heavily armed Muslim militiamen enter the once quiet Palestinian-controlled town from the south and quickly make their way to its northern edge. There, they commandeer their way into homes, almost all of them owned by Christian families, that offer good lines of sight into the living rooms and kitchens of the Jewish neighborhood of Gilo, on the southern edge of Jerusalem, just across a small valley from Beit Jalla.

Once darkness descends, sometimes even before, the shooting starts. Thousands of rounds of heavy machine-gun fire pour into houses on Gilo's picturesque Ha'anafa Street. It takes Israeli army sharp-shooters a few minutes to calibrate their sophisticated tracing equipment to home in on the exact source of the shooting and fire back to prevent any further "collateral damage," as the Israeli army calls it. The battle ranges inconclusively until the militiamen run out of ammunition. Then they pack up and go home.

To date, prime minister Ehud Barak's strategy for dealing with Arafat's war has prevented the Israel Defense Forces from doing anything more than respond to specific acts of violence. Heeding White House warnings, Barak maintains that "unleashing" the army to defend Israeli civilians could ignite a regional war. Yet ironically, Barak's policy of military "restraint" plays right into Arafat's hands and actually increases the risk of igniting the very war Barak wants to prevent.

The Palestinians' choice of Beit Jalla as the staging ground for attacks on civilians in Jerusalem is anything but random. It is part of a carefully laid and brilliantly executed Palestine Liberation Organization strategy to get the international community, and in particular the United States, to intervene on the side of the Palestinians and impose the "solution" Arafat failed to secure at the negotiating table.

Arafat's new plan is to get the international community to force Israel to withdraw to its pre-1967 lines without the Palestinians' making concessions of their own or formally ending their war against the Jewish state. Arafat knows that in order to persuade the international community to deploy a military force that would impose this solution, he must win sympathy. To this end, he was first willing to provoke the killing of hundreds of his own people, the younger the better. The Palestinian Authority, which Arafat controls and the United States funds, offered up to $ 2,000 to families who "sacrificed" a child in what the Palestinians are calling the "Al-Aksa Intifada," the war for Jerusalem. Palestinian media and high ranking officials encouraged children to attack Israeli positions far from Palestinian population centers with rocks, guns, and firebombs.

The purpose of these attacks was never to overrun the Israeli positions, only to provoke Israeli soldiers to kill Palestinian children for the benefit of television viewers. By offering up his own people, Arafat was able to cancel all the good will that Barak's unprecedented Camp David concessions had generated for Israel just weeks before and return Israel to its familiar role of international villain. Throughout the crisis, Arafat has displayed an uncanny ability to transform Israel's democratic institutions into Palestinian assets. In the uprising's early days, his scheme of provoking Israeli soldiers to kill Palestinian children proved spectacularly effective at whipping the Islamic world into a frenzy against Israel. While it also went a long way toward convincing the West that Arafat may need international protection, it did not close the deal. What would?

What if Arafat could market the message that Israel was "killing Christians" as effectively as he had sold the world the notion that it was "killing children"? Surely then Arafat's international protection force would be all but assured.

Thus, every night in Beit Jalla, Arafat orchestrates attempts to induce Israeli soldiers to kill Christians. As obvious as the ploy is to observers here, the yawning question Israelis are asking is, Why on earth does Prime Minister Barak allow himself and his country to be so cynically and dangerously exposed to fulfilling Palestinian objectives?