For Arafat, Palestinians, talks require balancing act

For peace, police ponder ally's arrest

March 19, 2002|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

RAMALLAH, West Bank - Ahmed Shahin is 28, unshaven and rarely cracks a smile. He keeps an AK-47 assault rifle strapped over his right shoulder. At first glance, he looks every bit a tough militiaman.

Shahin is both a militant and a member of the Palestinian security forces. He sees no conflict in these dual roles. It is his job to protect his leaders, and, sometimes, as happened last week, it means standing with other gunmen and exchanging fire with Israeli troops.

If U.S. diplomats can produce a cease-fire agreement - and it appeared yesterday that one was close - Shahin would find himself in an uncomfortable position. A key provision will almost certainly require that Palestinian police dismantle militia groups.

Shahin would be called upon to arrest the very men with whom he fought side by side only a few days ago.

"I will arrest anyone I'm ordered to arrest," Shahin said yesterday, as he walked toward Manara Square, the city's bustling marketplace. "I will even arrest the man's father. We lost many good people last week, and I am angry, but I will do what I have to do to make peace."

It is a promising statement in support of a truce, reflecting the official Palestinian line - unwavering support for Yasser Arafat. If he orders a cease-fire, it will be so.

But the reality is more complicated. Cracking down on extremist groups has proved to be one of the most difficult tasks for Arafat, who must balance demands from the United States, Israel and some Palestinians for a cease-fire against those of militant Palestinians who continue to use violence in support of their cause.

It is a balancing act that will require Arafat to prove to fellow Palestinians that they have something to gain by ending the violence.

Marwan Barghouti, the West Bank leader of Arafat's Fatah movement, said yesterday that the faction's dominant terror group, the Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, will adhere to a cease-fire only if it leads to a "comprehensive peace agreement."

Any accord that comes out of meetings mediated this week by U.S. envoy Anthony C. Zinni will be tested by the first Palestinian suicide bombing or the first Israeli assassination of a militant leader.

But it appears that progress is being made.

Israeli Defense Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer said the last troops in Palestinian territory were scheduled to withdraw from Bethlehem, Beit Jala and six places in the Gaza Strip by this morning. That would meet a key Palestinian demand for convening a face-to-face meeting with Israeli officials to set conditions for a cease-fire.

Zinni, a former Marine general, met yesterday in Jerusalem with Palestinian security officers and their Israeli counterparts. Both sides called the meeting productive, but it did not produce a formal agreement. More meetings are scheduled in the coming days.

Adding to the pressure to end the conflict, Vice President Dick Cheney arrived in Israel yesterday afternoon, his final stop on an 11-nation tour of the Middle East and Persian Gulf.

U.S. officials said Cheney has set aside time for meeting with Palestinian representatives but that no decision had been made as of last night to include Arafat. President Bush has pointedly refrained from inviting Arafat to the White House, saying the Palestinian leader has not done enough to crack down on terror groups.

A Cheney-Arafat meeting would send a clear message to Israel that Arafat remains the leader of the Palestinians and the key to securing a peace agreement.

Palestinian Information Minister Yasser Abed Rabbo said yesterday that no Palestinian officials would meet with Cheney until he first talks with Arafat.

"We are in fact perplexed that such a senior American official who is on an important tour in the region, designed to address the current crisis in the Middle East, will meet one of the parties in this conflict without meeting the other," he said in a statement.

Here, in the unofficial Palestinian capital, people seemed ready for quieter times. Less than a week after Israeli troops occupied and then withdrew from the city, merchants are repairing storefronts peppered with bullets and residents are trying to return to normal routines. Schoolchildren returned to class, and private cars returned to Manara Square.

But there were not yet crowds jostling for space on the sidewalks or swarms of taxis blasting their horns. Most of the bustle came from repair crews, drowning out the shouts of vendors with pushcarts overflowing with fresh almonds.

Shahin, the Palestinian security officer, paused during his walk to chat with friends and retell stories about dodging gunfire in alley-by-alley fighting.

He is a member of Force 17, Arafat's elite personal guard, and said he does nothing without orders. He fought, he said, to protect his city and Arafat from an invading army but acknowledges that his job can change by the minute.

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