DEBKAfile, October 28, 2001

"The speech Yasser Arafat delivered Saturday, October 27, restored to their true perspective a whole range of happenings in the week just ending  - in particular, the well-meaning attempts to persuade Israel that its army’s anti-terrorist cleanups in seven Palestinian towns, in the wake of the assassination of its tourism minister, Rehavem Zeevi, was a punishment the Palestinian leader could not be expected to bear - as well as hampering the American campaign against terror.

Then came the rise and fall of a deal brokered by the US to enable Israeli troops to pull out of Bethlehem and Beit Jalah. Struck on Friday night, October 26, the deal broke down Saturday morning, October 27. Instead of holding their fire for just 24 h ours, the Palestinians stepped up their attacks from the Al Aida refugee camp in the Bethlehem sector (as well as in most other parts of the West Bank and Gaza Strip).

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon thereupon suspended the pullout indefinitely.

Amid the noise and fury, Arafat made it clear that however much the world may have changed since September 11, every one of his spots remains firmly in place.

For one of his most bellicose speeches in months, Arafat gathered in his office in Gaza the political activists of all the Palestinian groups – Fatah-Tanzim, the Popular Front, the Democratic Front, Hamas and Jihad Islami.   Under the caption, 'Facing the Challenges', he placed the Palestinian struggle at the center of the Muslim scene and in the context of the war in Afghanistan.

Certain phrases, for which he raised his voice, drew loud cheers: “The Palestinian struggle is Al Qaeda (literally “The Base”)” or “Palestine is the true Al Qaeda. Those who don’t agree can drink the sea water of Gaza.” And: “The day will come for us to liberate all the mosques and churches of Jerusalem and unfurl the Palestinian flag over our capital city, Jerusalem.”

Arafat by reiterating the name of Osama bin Laden’s terror network, Al Qaeda, was throwing down a symbolic gauntlet.  DEBKAfile’s Palestinian experts interpret him as saying in effect that the Palestinian cause was the true basis for the Islamic struggle – not bin Laden, but the Palestinian people and their leader were the authentic fighters on behalf of Islam.

He was not trying to discredit bin Laden’s terror campaign against the United States, which has been lauded in Palestinian demonstrations which Arafat’s police suppressed violently. He drew cheers from his audience by declaring that the campaign was just, but at the same time the Saudi-born terrorist had done the Palestinians and their leader a grave injustice by usurping their rightful place as the original instigators of the struggle.
This was Arafat’s way of answering Osama bin Laden’s televised address shortly after the US launched its war in Afghanistan. Bin Laden then embraced the Palestinian cause and sneered at depraved Arab leaders, among them Arafat, for betraying that cause by being corrupt.

It should therefore have come as no surprise to anyone that, while sending his top officers, among them General Intelligence West Bank Chief Tawfiq Tirawi, to meet Israeli and American officers to discuss the Israeli army’s withdrawal from Palestinian territory, he also ordered the sameTirawi to defeat the exercise by keeping up the shooting at full blast in the Bethlehem-Gilo sector.

Arafat has no interest in ending his war against Israel; what he cares about is his place in Islamic history. When he launched his Al Aqsa intifada last September, he fought his holy war alone in the Arab and Muslim arena. Now he has powerful competition from the millionaire terrorist who despises him and has declared a global intifada. Arafat is not one to back down when faced with competition. Quite the opposite, he is stepping up the combat.
The suspension of the Israeli withdrawal from Bethlehem and Beit Jala – until Sunday in the first instance - is likely therefore to drag out much longer, as long as Israel insists on not pulling its troops back under fire. Meanwhile, American and European diplomats have gone into action to get Arafat to halt the shooting by Monday.
In the meantime, the wars go on – in Kabul, in Bethlehem and in Gilo alike.

All the distinctions drawn by US diplomats and media, like Tom Friedman, the New York Times columnist, between the two arenas are therefore artificial because it is Yasser Arafat who will never accept them. He sees himself as bin Laden’s forerunner and more than an equal in the great Islamic campaign against the infidel."