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Experts: Sharon Repeating Lebanon History - 2002-04-01

The two key leaders in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict - Yasser Arafat and Ariel Sharon - were in a similar situation 20 years ago. Many experts in the region say they feel history may be repeating itself.

It was from Beirut, Lebanon, that Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat was sent into exile in 1982, after being defeated in a military campaign masterminded by then Israeli Defense Minister Ariel Sharon, now the country's prime minister.

The two have clear memories of the siege of Beirut that led to Mr. Arafat being banished to Tunisia, where he lived in exile until 1994, when he was authorized under peace process accords to establish Palestinian self-rule inside the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Today, the Palestinian leader, who remains inside his Ramallah headquarters under virtual house arrest, told CNN he feels he is re-living the past.

"For me it is not the first time. He [Mr. Sharon] has to remember what happened in 88 days in Beirut," Yasser Arafat said.

Mr. Sharon hardly needs reminding. He has expressed sorrow at failing to order the assassination of Mr. Arafat as the Palestinian leader stood on the docks at Beirut in 1982, waiting to sail into exile.

An Israeli sniper reported he had Mr. Arafat in his sights for a clear shot. But Mr. Sharon could not give the command because of a commitment Israel had given to the United States not to harm the Palestinian leader.

Mr. Sharon said last week that he regrets having been forced to give the same pledge again, this time to President Bush.

An Israeli commentator, Nahum Barnea, writes in the Hebrew daily newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth that Mr. Sharon "has not changed his basic conception since 1982."

Mr. Barnea says that for the Israeli prime minister, "the score is still unsettled from then, waiting to be closed." The Israeli commentator says this explains what he calls Mr. Sharon's "tremendous urge to humiliate Arafat," a humiliation that Mr. Barnea says "has no logical use, but is just an old desire for revenge."

But Mr. Barnea also says he believes that Mr. Arafat "bears the main responsibility for the disaster that has fallen on him and on his people."

A Palestinian spokesman, Mustafa Barghouti, the head of the Palestinian Medical Relief Committee, also drew parallels between Israel's invasion of Lebanon and the situation today. "This man [Mr. Sharon] is dangerous. He did it before in Lebanon, destroying the hope of peace in all Palestine and Israel, and he is doing it now in the West Bank and Gaza Strip," Mr. Barghouti said.

An Israeli military affairs analyst, Ze'ev Schiff, also sees strong echoes of the past in what is happening now. But he says it is Mr. Arafat who is responsible for the current tragedy. He says Mr. Arafat is doing to Israel and the Palestinian territories what he did to Lebanon and Jordan.

"I can tell you, if it does not end, and I don't see in the foreseeable future that it is going to end, then we should see more and more bloodshed. One has to remember, and not forget for a moment, that Arafat, the same player, did the same in Lebanon, the same thing, and it was worse, a terrible civil war, and it did not stop until he was expelled," Ze'ev Schiff said.

Mr. Schiff says Prime Minister Sharon may be close to implementing the same strategy he used in Lebanon - trying to find a way to banish Mr. Arafat from the West Bank and Gaza Strip.