YASSER ARAFAT is walking a thin line between Palestinian civil war and saving his peace accord with Israel.
Following a suicide bombing in the Gaza Strip that killed three Israeli soldiers on Friday, the Palestinian leader has launched his most sweeping crackdown against Islamic militants.
The move may meet Israel's security demands, but it appears to have brought Gaza closer to a civil war among rival Palestinian factions. Some Israeli and Palestinian analysts, however, warn that inaction would breed a broader conflict between Israel and the Palestinians.
``If this violence continues, the peace process will be in very real danger, and Mr. Arafat still has a far greater interest in it succeeding than failing,'' says Ariel Merari, director of the Political Violence Research Unit at Tel Aviv University.
Palestinian police yesterday arrested Sheikh Abdallah Shami, the spiritual leader of the Islamic Jihad, which claimed responsibility for the weekend attack. The police rounded up another 20 militants, bringing to 180 the total arrested since Friday. And the Palestinian Authority (PA), charged with administering self-rule, banned demonstrations in the autonomous zones of Gaza and Jericho.
Two Damascus-based Palestinian factions condemned the arrests and warned of civil war in Palestinian ranks. Syrian state-run newspaper Tishrin condemned the crackdown and accused Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin of instigating ``inter-Palestinian fighting.''
But some Palestinians sympathetic to Arafat say that if he does not act decisively against Islamic Jihad, he could quickly be made irrelevant in the growing confrontation between Israel and Islamic extremists. They warn that militant factions could close ranks in a bid to destroy Arafat and the peace accord.
Israeli analysts echo this warning, saying that unless Arafat reins in the militants, the peace process could be in serious jeopardy because the Israeli public had lost confidence in the accord.
But other Palestinian analysts say the accord is already doomed because of structural flaws and delays over Israeli security concerns, and see a hidden Israeli agenda to pursue a separate solution for the West Bank, which is to be placed under Palestinian self-rule by 1998.
``I don't think Mr. Rabin wants to hand the West Bank to Arafat,'' says Palestinian analyst Ghassan al-Khatib. ``Rabin might be looking at a different solution for the West Bank, which could eventually involve Jordan's King Hussein.
``I think Palestinians on the West Bank are far less enthusiastic about autonomy now than they were a few months ago,'' he says, ``not because they are in love with occupation but because they have no faith in the process.''
Rabin warned in an interview on Israeli television Sunday night that Israel/PLO talks scheduled for next week to discuss extending Palestinian self-rule to the West Bank could be ``stalled many months if terrorism doesn't cease.''
But Israel, which has long demanded that Arafat crack down on Islamic militants, appears to be giving Arafat more room to maneuver in the aftermath of Friday's bombing than it did following last month's wave of attacks.
Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres insisted that Arafat must be given space to deal with the threat of Islamic extremism. ``We must make a supreme effort to allow the PA a reasonable subsistence - otherwise their support will fail,'' he told Israeli Radio after the attack.
``We must see the wider picture and not use methods that will push many people toward Hamas,'' Mr. Peres said. ``We have to fight two things: Hamas and the support for Hamas, which can be very large.''
The crackdown on Jihad is qualitatively different from the arrest - and later release - of 200 activists of the Islamic Resistance Movement, Hamas, in the wake of last month's suicide bombing in Tel Aviv that claimed 23 lives. Hamas has a far wider support-base than Jihad and is deeply rooted in the community through philanthropic activities.
``It is easier for Arafat to move against the Islamic Jihad than against Hamas,'' said Khalil Shikaki, director of the Center for Palestinian Research and Studies in the West Bank town of Nablus. ``Not only is Jihad a much smaller group than Hamas - and therefore likely to provoke less of a reaction in the event of a crackdown - but it is also having more difficulty adjusting its ideology to the new situation.''
Friday's bombing was the first in the recent wave of attacks by Islamic militants carried out within the PA's area of jurisdiction and the first in which Palestinian officials were injured. ``This time Arafat could take people to court and have them charged because Palestinian lives were endangered in the attack,'' Mr. Shikaki said.