Arafat Tells Ha'aretz: We Squeezed Hamas

Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat said Friday that Hamas declared a halt on terror attacks due to pressure exerted by the PA.

Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat said Friday that Hamas declared a halt on terror attacks due to pressure exerted by the PA. "It wasn't easy, and the declaration came after we pressured them [Hamas]," Arafat told Ha'aretz.

During a phone call from his Ramallah office with Javier Solana, the European Union High Representative for Common Foreign and Security Policy, Arafat struck a tougher-sounding chord when talking about the PA's handling of Hamas. "We've squeezed them," he said.

When asked why the PA failed to put a clamp on the group earlier, Arafat said: "We started to do so, but the main orders which [Hamas operatives in the territories] receive come from the outside."

Despite the the group's cease-fire declaration, Arafat said the PA still has its work cut out. "Now we have to monitor the fulfillment of their announcement. We'll insist that what they declared be carried out and applied; we'll discuss this matter in the cabinet and other bodies; and we hope there won't be more terror attacks," he said. "But you have to keep in mind that they receive orders from commanders who are abroad - [they receive orders and information from] Arab television stations and other sources - so we have to be very careful."

Arafat said the PA has arrested some 200 Hamas and Islamic Jihad operatives and has closed 49 of the groups' offices and institutions.

Jibril Rajoub, the head of PA preventive security on the West Bank, meanwhile, said he does not expect more terror attacks. "The attacks saved [Israeli Prime Minister Ariel] Sharon from international pressure, and they caused major harm to Palestinian interests," he said, in a separate interview held at a preventive security compound in Bitunya, near Ramallah. "Thus, without any connection to Israel's or America's position, we reached a unilateral decision to crack down on them."

According to Rajoub, the turning point came in October when U.S. President George Bush affirmed support for a Palestinian state in a speech. This affirmation, rather than military pressure exerted by Israel, enhanced Palestinian motivation to act against terror, Rajoub said.

In the interview with the PA chairman, Arafat refrained from criticizing Sharon. "He is a general, and he has been elected to serve as prime minister, and he is the one with whom we do business," Arafat said.

The PA leader also said he believes there is hope of reaching a peace agreement with Sharon. Arafat recalled that Sharon demolished Israeli homes in the Sinai Peninsula under terms of the peace agreement with Egypt, and he also took part in the Wye Plantation peace talks. Arafat added he would have no problem meeting Sharon should the prime minister decide to continue with the peace process.

However, Rajoub called Sharon a "murderer," and warned Israel against trying to harm Arafat. "Should you deport Arafat or kill him, you will have more casualties than what you've suffered in the past 50 years," Rajoub said. "God help you if, heaven forbid, something happens to him. What do you expect to happen when you insult our chairman? It doesn't matter whether you like him or not - that's your problem," he said. "I want to remind you that in our view, Sharon is a murderer, and his hands have, from 1948 up to the present day been soaked with blood; but he was elected, and we can't say that he isn't `relevant.'"

Rajoub added that the Palestinians have done their part, and now it is Sharon's turn to contribute to bringing about peace.

Arafat said that the Palestinian leadership anticipated disturbances, such as those in Gaza over the last few days, once it declared a state of emergency. The unrest, however, does not foretell a civil war even though "there are some woes right now in Gaza."

Arafat insisted he will be in Bethlehem for the Christmas holiday, which "has been my custom since I came here." He said that while he has not yet asked Israel for clearance to go to Bethlehem, he intends to do so. "Every time I've moved from place to place, I've coordinated with Israel. That is the protocol."

Arafat does not expect Israel to reject his request. "I'm sure they won't say no. My intention is to travel to Bethlehem for no other reason than to mark the Christmas holiday. It is, after all, a universal event," he said.

When pressed about reports that Israel is demanding the arrest of former tourism minister Rehavam Ze'evi's assassins in exchange for permission to go to Bethlehem, Arafat said the PA has already arrested two of the assassins' brothers, and that it is "doing its utmost" to apprehend the killers.

Rajoub said that if members of his security team learn of the whereabouts of the assassins, he will not hesitate to arrest them. He described Israel's attempt to block Arafat's trip to Bethlehem as a "stinking trick."

More of both interviews will be published in Ha'aretz's weekend magazine on Friday.