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Monday, 31 December, 2001, 11:09 GMT
Q&A: Arafat and Israel
As Israel distances itself from Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, BBC News Online answers questions about the current crisis.

What is Yasser Arafat's position with the Israelis?

Following a Palestinian attack on a bus at a Jewish settlement in which at least 10 people died, Israel carried out strikes on Gaza and the West Bank.

It was also swift to announce that it would no longer talk to Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, declaring him "irrelevant".

The Israeli Government is indicating that, as far as it is concerned, the eight-year period during which he was Israel's "partner for peace" is now at an end.

The US and EU still regard him to be the leader of the Palestinian people, but now there is widespread concern about who might replace Yasser Aarfat should he fall.

There may well be chaos, as different figures and factions jockey for power. The militant Islamic group Hamas might take over.

Neither of these scenarios make peace or stability more likely.

So are the Israelis out to destroy Yasser Arafat?

A central plank of Israeli policy towards the Palestinians over recent years has been the principle that whatever Yasser Arafat's failings, it was far better to deal with him that any other Palestinian leader or party.

Although the Islamic group Hamas admitted carrying out suicide attacks, Mr Sharon holds Mr Arafat responsible for the bombings which killed 25 people. In response, Israeli forces have launched devastating attacks on Mr Arafat's infrastructure.

The attacks made it more difficult for Mr Arafat to assert his authority and clamp down on the Islamic militants - something Israel and the United States insisted he must do.

The direct targeting of Mr Arafat and the symbols of his authority lead many observers to conclude that Israel is deliberately undermining the Palestinian leader - and this looks to be complete with the severance of ties.

Is there an alternative to Yasser Arafat?

There does not appear to be any ready alternative to Mr Arafat as a partner in negotiations.

There is no alternative Palestinian leader with the authority or prestige of Mr Arafat, diminished though this is. The younger generation of Palestinian leaders are more radical and less inclined to negotiate with Israel on the terms that Mr Arafat did.

In the absence of a peace process and a central authority, such as the Palestinian Authority, Israel could well seek to interact with the Palestinians at a more local level.

This might fit in with Israel's often-repeated threat to seal off Palestinian areas from each other and the outside world if the process collapses and violence surges.

Has Mr Arafat cracked down on terrorists?

Between the suicide bombings of 2 December and Israel's retaliatory attacks, Mr Arafat had declared a state of emergency and was reported to have arrested more than 100 militants - some of them political leaders. Mr Arafat's security forces even attempted to put the spiritual leader of Hamas, Sheikh Ahmad Yassin, under house arrest. These efforts collapsed after hundreds of Hamas supporters turned out to protect Sheikh Yassin's house.

Israel is far from satisfied. It appears that many of those initially arrested are no longer behind bars. Israel has issued a list of more than 100 militants that it wants arrested. Almost all of these are reported to be still at large.

The Israeli army says it will continue raids in the Palestinian territories to halt attacks against Israel.

Are the Palestinians heading for a civil war?

Palestinian officials complain that a campaign of widespread arrests of Hamas and Islamic Jihad activists by the Palestinian Authority at this time would cause the outbreak of a Palestinian civil war.

A precursor to possible inter-Palestinian clashes was played out in the brief clashes and tense stand-off that surrounded attempts by Mr Arafat's forces to put Hamas leader Sheikh Yassin under house arrest.

There is little doubt that Palestinian Authority forces can expect serious armed resistance should they attempt to clamp down hard on Hamas - as is being demanded of them by Israel and the United States.

More widely, Palestinian society is under tremendous pressure after more than a year of the intifada and the accompanying closure of the Palestinian territories. The tension and violence seem to be climbing inexorably and observers are warning that conditions may be ripe for Palestinians to turn on each other.

Is there an end in sight to the current cycle of violence?

It is very difficult to see how either side could step back from the current situation of attack and retaliation.

If Mr Arafat is driven into exile, killed or loses all control in the Palestinian areas the situation may deteriorate even further.

Israeli planners may be calculating that the fall of Mr Arafat would trigger a Palestinian power struggle between those close to Mr Arafat and the militants of Hamas and Islamic Jihad. Weakened in this way, the intifada and the attacks on Israel might die out.

Previously, in times of such crisis, one or both sides have turned to Washington for help in defusing the situation. The American's current stance - unambiguous backing for Israel's position - does not put it in a good position to act as mediator.

Links to more Middle East stories are at the foot of the page.


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