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Bombings test Arafat's control

The Palestinian Authority starts arresting militants in the wake of one of the deadliest weekends of attacks in Israel.

Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat faces a "moment of truth."

That's how US Secretary of State Colin Powell describes the aftermath of an unprecedented series of suicide bombings in Israel this weekend.

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The central question now facing Mr. Arafat: Does he have the political strength to imprison Palestinian militants and stop the violence of the 14-month-old intifada, or uprising?

Following the Palestinian attacks Saturday night and yesterday morning that killed nearly 30 people and wounded more than 200, the Palestinian leadership yesterday announced a "state of emergency" that gives the Palestinian Authority (PA) broad powers to arrest militants, and early reports indicated some arrests were under way.

While the terms of this state of emergency remain unclear, the move indicates Arafat recognizes that he must at least appear to act in accordance with Israeli and US demands that he curtail Palestinian attacks against Israel.

But Arafat's attempt to stifle terrorism and tamp down the uprising may lead to civil war among Palestinians. Even leaders of his own Fatah faction - the mainstream of Palestinian political life - say that now is not the time to lay down arms and return to negotiations alone.

Extremist groups such as Islamic Jihad and the Islamic Resistance Movement, or Hamas, which claimed responsibility for the weekend attacks, say they are against Arafat's attempts to negotiate with the Israelis and may fight the PA if it comes down too hard on them.

Put simply, says Palestinian political scientist Manuel Hassassian, Arafat "has to choose between peace and continuing the intifada." But the "peace" alternative means agreeing to cease-fire terms that offer Palestinians little if any hope of reaching statehood and independence.

In the view of most Palestinians, Dr. Hassassian says, this option means the "containment and abortion of the intifada with nothing in return." The Israeli-Palestinian strife has killed nearly 1,000 people, more than three-quarters of them Palestinian, in the past 14 months.

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The PA, adds Mouin Rabbani, director of the independent Palestinian American Research Center in Ramallah, "can only crack down so far without it blowing up in their faces in the absence of a clear political agenda."

That agenda is lacking because Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has ruled out any political discussions until the violence ceases completely. He also insists that US-brokered cease-fire mechanisms, devised by former US Senator George Mitchell and CIA director George Tenet, be held in abeyance until there are seven days of absolute quiet.

Arafat's other option - embracing the intifada and rejecting Israeli and US demands - would lay the way open to a deeper and broader violence between the two sides. Israel's efforts to guarantee its security would undoubtedly fuel Palestinian determination to continue the conflict.

The Israelis, meanwhile, stand to reap the moral and political advantage that follows the carnage of their people. Mr. Sharon was in Washington yesterday and met with President Bush, who said in a statement that "now more than ever, Chairman Arafat and the Palestinian Authority must demonstrate through their actions and not merely their words their commitment to fight terror."

Mr. Powell said yesterday on the CBS "Face the Nation" program that he told Arafat "that it was absolutely necessary for him to take positive action now."

Powell said that Arafat told him "rather specifically that he has expressed his condolences and he is going to work on it, and he acknowledged that these were attacks against him as well as attacks against Israel."

Israeli officials indicated yesterday that they are prepared to "do what is necessary" to protect Israelis in the absence of effective Palestinian actions. Judging from the events of the past few months, their strategy would center on expanded efforts to assassinate suspected Palestinian terrorists, re-occupy areas under Palestinian autonomy, and seal off Israel from Palestinian infiltration.

Israeli security forces yesterday were already tightening restrictions that prevent Palestinians from moving among their cities, towns, and villages.

One tactic - which the Israelis call the "targeted killing" of Palestinians plotting terrorist attacks - may have provoked Hamas's devastating bombs in Jerusalem and the northern Israeli city of Haifa.

Hamas refrained from attacking Israelis inside Israel proper, as opposed to those inside the Palestinian territories, following the events in the US on Sept. 11. But the Nov. 24 Israeli assassination of a senior Hamas militant, Mahmoud Abu Hanoud, brought vows of revenge that the weekend attacks seemed to bear out. Palestinian sentiments were already inflamed by the explosion of an Israeli mine in Gaza that killed five boys under the age of 15 on Nov. 23.

This pas de deux of attack and reprisal, with each side justifying its actions by pointing to the actions of the other, contributes to a seemingly insoluble situation.

A US special envoy, retired Marine Corps Gen. Anthony Zinni, has been in Jerusalem for a week in order to bring about a cease-fire, but yesterday he found himself heckled by frustrated Israelis as he paid a condolence visit to the site of the Jerusalem bombings. "Zinni go home," some people shouted.

Even so, he too demanded that Arafat arrest those responsible and go after their organizations, echoing the Israeli version of what needs to be done to ease the situation. He earlier blamed Palestinians militants for trying to scuttle his mission.

But Palestinian leaders have largely welcomed Zinni's efforts and defended their approach in the Palestinian and Arab media. They in turn accuse the Israelis of attempting to sabotage the mission with the killing of Abu Hanoud and the five boys in Gaza, although the Israelis say the children detonated a charge intended for Palestinian gunmen.

Palestinian officials continually point to the continuing Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands as the source of the violence and demand that efforts to halt the violence address the underlying problem.

"The question is," says Hassassian, a professor at Bethlehem University, "do we deal with outcomes or with root causes? Let's end this ... occupation."