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Latest Violence Shows Mideast Gulf Widening - 2002-03-31

The suicide bombings by Palestinians and the Israeli isolation of Yasser Arafat in his compound have intensified the Middle East conflict, leading to fears it could spread in the region. The gulf is widening between the two sides, as demonstrated by a Palestinian rally in Washington and Sunday's speech by Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon gave no ground in his speech to the nation. He said all of Israel's efforts to end the violence have been met with terror, declaring that Israel must combat this terrorism uncompromisingly. He added there will be no compromise with terrorism in the form of suicide bombers slaughtering innocent people.

Mr. Sharon said this terrorism is promoted by one man, Yasser Arafat, whom he called the enemy of Israel and the free world. The prime minister added that peace can only be achieved by wiping out his terrorist infrastructure.

Dore Gold, a top adviser to Mr. Sharon, also put the blame for the violence squarely on Mr. Arafat. "Under the Oslo agreements," he said, "Yasser Arafat was supposed to become the Nelson Mandela of the Palestinians, a man who would set aside violence as a political tool, renounce terrorism. Unfortunately, in the area under his jurisdiction, a vast network of international terrorism has grown, Hamas, Islamic Jihad, PFLP, the organization that invented airplane hijacking, all have been operating against Israel."

But Mr. Sharon was the villain of a weekend Palestinian demonstration in Washington. Waving the Palestinian flag and placards denouncing the Israeli leader, several hundred demonstrators called for Israeli withdrawal from the occupied territories, the West Bank and Gaza.

A dozen Palestinian children held signs with names. A Palestinian woman explained they represent children killed by Israeli forces. She said, "I'm here to show all the world, all the victims that have nothing to do with what is going on between Israel and Palestine, innocent children ranging, as you can tell here, from teenagers, 13, eight, seven, five year old children."

A local Muslim woman, Miriam Hamdallah, said the demonstration is trying to strike some balance in U.S. policy. "The United States," she said, "gives so much aid to Israel that we are partly responsible for what is happening. They are armed to the teeth, and they [are] attacking a civilian population. I find that unfair. I find the whole occupation unfair."

A non-Muslim woman said she hoped the demonstration would raise American awareness. She said, "This is a perspective that most Americans are not aware of. Most Americans are aware of the Israeli perspective. It is about time the Palestinians speak up for their suffering."

Wayne Owens of the Center for Middle East Peace and Economic Cooperation says Palestinian leaders must share responsibility for the suffering of their people. Appearing on CNN, he recalled a recent visit he paid to Yasser Arafat in his sealed room in Ramallah. "Arafat is a sad case," he said. Arafat had great opportunity and a year and a half ago when the second intifada began, moved back to his basic instincts, which are to embrace violence and to wink at violence. He has become the victim of the Hamas and the Islamic Jihad people, whom he failed to control."

Mr. Owens added Mr. Arafat is now a leader without the resources to lead, yet he remains the only viable leader of the Palestinians and must be treated as such. Mr. Owens said if Mr. Arafat disappears from the scene, there is no telling what the impact would be on both Palestinians and Israelis. "The Israeli people are in grave dange," he continued. "They are five million Jews, and they are surrounded by 250 million Arabs, and those Arabs now hate them and distrust them in ways not true in the past. The Holy Land has seen many wars over the ages, and you have to worry that a serious regional war is happening."

Mr. Owens said this is all the more reason for the United States to get fully engaged in finding and perhaps imposing a political settlement on a conflict spinning out of control.