A Deadly Passover. and a State of Siege: It's Come to This. as Suicide Bombings and Sharon's Tanks Trap Arafat in His Own Compound, the World Wonders Whether There's an Endgame or Any Hope for Peace. on the Ground

Article excerpt

Byline: Christopher Dickey and Joshua Hammer

Darkness fell inside Yasir Arafat's offices. Dozens of his guards, his cronies and members of his Palestinian government-that-used-to-be lit candles and scrounged for cigarettes, listening to Israeli guns and bulldozers demolishing the buildings around them. Often their faces were lit by the dim glow of cell-phone screens. Arafat himself gave a stream of interviews, saying he was ready to die a martyr. But as the day and the night thundered on, it was clear Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon had another fate in mind for the man he's fought so bitterly for so long. Months ago Sharon declared Arafat "irrelevant" and confined him to his Ramallah headquarters surrounded by tanks. Now, in the aftermath of another horrific suicide bombing that killed 22 civilians celebrating Passover, Sharon declared Arafat "an enemy" and vowed to "isolate" him, possibly even "expel" him. Certainly, he would humiliate him, as if the 74-year-old Sharon thought a martyr's death was too good for the watery-eyed, quivering, 72-year-old chairman of the Palestinian Authority.

Such is their blood feud. Despite more than 10 years of negotiations between successive Israeli governments and Arafat, Sharon never could accept him as a partner in peace, never could bring himself to shake the Palestinian's hand. Now the two are squared off in a battle so intense and so personal it threatens the future of all Israelis and Palestinians. The leaders of the Arab world are watching the scene, too, torn between sinister admiration for Arafat's people striking fear into the heart of Israel, and desperation at the prospect that the showdown will shake their own increasingly decrepit regimes. They're hoping, or perhaps dreaming, that a joint peace proposal made at a summit in Beirut last week will open the way to new diplomatic initiatives at the United Nations. The Bush administration, which tried for a year to steer clear of this thankless feud, wanted its post-September 11 war to be fought on other battlegrounds. But it finds itself, now, dragged into the middle of the Arafat-Sharon showdown.

Slowly the screens of the cell phones faded to black as the batteries died. The tremulous anger of Arafat's voice fell silent on the satellite channels. But while Arafat languished in the dark, others paid the ultimate price in this confrontation. As Israeli tanks rumbled into Ramallah, shops were shuttered and residents deserted the streets. In the blocks surrounding the compound, Palestinian militiamen staged a last stand. As one fighter tried to take out an Israeli sniper, his cell phone rang incessantly. He refused to answer, afraid it was his mother and she'd be worried. Minutes later he was dead, his neck pierced by the sniper's bullet. At Ramallah Hospital, the bloody corpses of a 21-year-old woman and an old man lay on slabs in the mortuary alongside two young fighters. By late Saturday, rumors circulated--and were denied--that the Israelis planned to rush Arafat and his armed men inside the compound.

And yet the suicide bombings did not stop. Within hours of the Israeli assault an 18-year-old girl blew herself up, killing two and injuring 20 others in a crowded south Jerusalem neighborhood. On Saturday, another bomber set himself off in a Tel Aviv cafe, wounding at least 29 people. As Washington called on Arafat to bring an end to the violence from his besieged rooms in a crumbling building, there was little reason to believe he could, even if he would.

"It's like living in a Greek tragedy where the worst becomes inevitable," said Nabil Shaath, one of the Palestinian Authority's most articulate and moderate voices. "It's almost as if it's destiny. America can stop all of that--and only America can stop all of that." But how? After trying to avoid the Mideast morass, the Bush administration waded in only when it was clear that its goal of removing Saddam Hussein--with at least the private support of Arab regimes--was endangered by Arab anger at the Palestinians' plight. …