‘Arafat is no longer relevant as far as Israel is concerned and there will be no more contact with him,’ an Israeli cabinet statement said. Israeli Justice Minister Meir Sheetrit said there were no plans to assassinate the Palestinian leader, however. ‘We have no intention of physically harming Arafat,’ he said. During the night of 12-13 December, Israeli tanks moved to within 200 metres of Arafat’s headquarters in Ramallah. The nearby Palestinian TV and radio stations were destroyed by Israeli bulldozers.

Since the 1 December suicide bombing that killed 25 people in Jerusalem and Haifa, Israel has maintained that it would seek the political elimination of Arafat if the Palestinian leader failed to take adequate action against armed Palestinian groups. Arafat has also come under heavy pressure from the US and the European Union (EU) to crack down hard on the Hamas and Islamic Jihad groups in particular.

US special envoy Anthony Zinni, who arrived in the region at the end of November, has continued to hold meetings with Palestinian and Israeli security officials as the violence has raged. Washington and the EU have put the onus on Arafat to make sure that the violence stops, although the EU has also called on Israel to stop its policy of assassinating Palestinian leaders. The 1 December attacks came after Israel assassinated one of the leaders of Hamas.

Israel’s efforts to marginalise Arafat and the unrelenting attacks on the security and political institutions of the Palestinian Authority (PA) raise questions as to whether there is scope for an alternative Palestinian leadership to emerge. Analysts say it is unlikely that any of the existing political and security figures in the PA would be prepared to risk putting themselves forward as a replacement for Arafat. Deputy leader Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) and PA speaker Ahmed Qurieh (Abul Alaa) are the most prominent political figures technically eligible to replace Arafat. Security chiefs Jibril Rajoub, based in the West Bank, and Gaza-based Mohamed Dahlan also wield considerable power in Palestinian ranks.

However, Israel’s pressure on Arafat and the PA has led to the strengthening of other Palestinian forces, in particular Hamas, and the West Bank chapter of Arafat’s Fatah movement, Marwan Barghouti.

The other major factor in the Palestinian equation is the Arab states. It has been suggested that Jordan might contribute to a security deal in the West Bank and Gaza by sending in its forces. However, King Abdullah has ruled this out. ‘We will not send our troops to the West Bank to be a target for anyone,’ he said on 13 December.

The Arab League and the Organisation of the Islamic Conference (OIC) have issued clear statements of support for Arafat. The OIC on 11 December issued a communique after an emergency meeting in Qatar calling on the Palestinian people to ‘rally round its Palestinian Authority led by President Yasser Arafat’.