Arafat comes under threat Islamic extremists demand that he end crackdown at once

'Reached point of treason'

New concerns raised among Israelis over political assassination

November 02, 1998|By Ann LoLordo | Ann LoLordo,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

JERUSALEM -- Islamic extremists threatened Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat yesterday, demanding that he halt a crackdown against them or face dire consequences.

In a leaflet faxed to news organizations, the military wing of the radical Islamic group Hamas accused Arafat of having "reached the point of treason" by moving against Hamas and called for an immediate end to the crackdown in order to spare Palestinians "the horrors of civil war," and Arafat's camp the "fires of revenge."

Hamas' threat appeared to be its first against Arafat's government.

The Iranian-backed Hezbollah guerrilla group in Lebanon went further yesterday and singled out Arafat for attack. Its leader, Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, called for the assassination of Arafat for signing the latest interim peace deal with the Israelis.

In the U.S.-brokered peace accord, Arafat pledged to aggressively fight terrorism in exchange for more of the West Bank now occupied by Israeli troops. Since the agreement was reached at the Wye Plantation on Maryland's Eastern Shore, Arafat's Palestinian authority has rounded up scores of extremists.

The Islamic threats were matched by heightened concern among Israelis that a political assassination could again take place in the Jewish state.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the hard-line politician who won election in 1996 on a pledge to slow down the peace process, has been called a liar and traitor by ultra-nationalist groups for agreeing to give the Palestinians more territory, and left-wing hecklers shouted him down yesterday at a memorial ceremony marking the third anniversary of the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, who started the land-for-peace process.

As Netanyahu placed a wreath on Rabin's grave, the protesters shouted, "Inciter, inciter of murder!" It was a reference to Netanyahu's anti-government rhetoric in the months preceding Rabin's death. Some Israelis, including Rabin's widow, blame Netanyahu for creating an atmosphere of hate that prompted a right-wing religious student to kill Rabin.

Yesterday was the first nationwide memorial to Rabin as flags flew at half-staff and radio stations played mournful music.

Netanyahu, who denied any responsibility for Rabin's death, acknowledged the rift that remains in Israeli society.

"I pray that we can extend a hand to one another and together extinguish the fires of hatred, without blurring the differences among us, because peace is made first among brothers," Netanyahu said in an address to a special session of Israel's parliament.

Netanyahu sought to qualify the harsh criticism of his decision to move ahead with the peace process.

"A tiny, tiny minority is expressing these violent threats," Netanyahu said last week. "I don't think that reflects on the majority. As far as these kinds of threats, I think no leader of any nation should start calculating his own personal security."

But a recent Gallup poll of 566 Israelis for the Israeli daily newspaper Ma'ariv found that 60 percent feared that right-wing extremists would try to kill Netanyahu.

Israel's secret service advised the prime minister to reduce his public appearances, and security for him has been increased.

Ehud Sprinzak, an Israeli expert on the right wing, said the invective directed at Netanyahu comes from the same camp that opposed Rabin's decision to make peace with the Palestinians. But he doesn't believe the threat is as great now as it was then.

"There was a sense of desperation" among the Jewish settlers in the West Bank, said Sprinzak, a political scientist at Hebrew University. "The intensity of the protest, the intensity of desperation and the degree of danger are much, much smaller today."

Trouble from the fringe

But political commentator Yosef Lapid, writing in Ma'ariv, cautioned the prime minister to address the extreme right's concerns. Netanyahu was elected in part on their votes because he vowed not to compromise their dream of a greater Israel, which would encompass the occupied territories of the West Bank.

"It is from this fringe that trouble may come -- extreme behavior could happen, unless the far right isn't spoken to, if attempts are not made to placate it and to show sympathy for the loss it now feels," Lapid wrote.

For Arafat, the Hamas threat followed by several days the arrest of dozens of Islamic activists by Palestinian security forces. The Palestinian authority also placed the Hamas spiritual leader, Sheik Ahmed Yassin, under house arrest. The authority initiated the arrests after a Hamas suicide bomber tried to blow up a school bus carrying 40 Israeli children in the Gaza Strip last week.

None of the children was injured, but an Israeli soldier died when the suicide bomber's car rammed into a jeep that was escorting the bus.

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