BY AHMAD NIMER
RAMALLAH — Over the last week a new political term has entered the lexicon of Israeli political commentators and government spokespersons: "Arafat's Alatalena moment". The reference is to the ship which was shelled by the leader of the Labour Zionist movement and Israel's first prime minister, David Ben Gurion, in 1948.
The Alatalena was carrying ammunition for armed groups associated with the right-wing of the Zionist movement, and Ben Gurion ordered the attack on the ship because he feared the independent action of the right would endanger the control over the Zionist movement wielded by the Labour Party.
The use of this phrase in the current political context indicates the growing pressure on Palestinian Authority (PA) head Yasser Arafat to crack down on the myriad of political factions in the Israeli-occupied Palestinian territories which are opposed to calling an end to the intifada and returning to negotiations under the auspices of the United States.
Whether the historical parallels are accurate or not, events on the ground in the West Bank and Gaza Strip indicate that Arafat may be taking this message to heart. The most significant sign of this occurred in Gaza on October 9, when PA security forces opened fire with live ammunition and tear gas on a 5000-strong demonstration opposing the US-led attacks on Afghanistan. Three demonstrators were killed, including a 13-year old boy and 47 people were wounded.
For the two days following the demonstration, clashes continued between PA security forces and residents of the refugee camps covering large swathes of the Gaza Strip. An order from Yasser Arafat has closed all universities in Gaza for an indefinite period, and schools were closed for one day. Moreover, journalists have been banned from entering Gaza to cover developments there and information about the events is difficult to obtain as many Gazans are afraid of speaking about what occurred.
Palestinian officials have claimed that the demonstrators were killed by unknown assailants who shot at police, but this version of events has been contradicted by numerous eyewitnesses. Two participants in the demonstration told Green Left Weekly that no shooting occurred from the side of the demonstrators and this has been confirmed from other political sources.
Ahmad, a 27-year old resident of Gaza City told GLW: "We had gathered to protest the US-attacks the night before and were heading towards the Palestinian Legislative Council. Around 300 metres outside the campus around 500 Palestinian police barred our way and began shooting tear gas and live ammunition into the crowd. No-one imagined it would come to this."
The PA has established an inquiry to investigate the events but past experience gives little hope that this will result in an accurate or speedy investigation. In 1995, 13 demonstrators were killed in similar circumstances by PA security forces and the results of the subsequent PA inquiry have never been made public.
Israeli and US spokespeople have applauded the PA for its crushing of the protest march. Israeli deputy defence minister Dalia Rabin-Pelossof commented: "We are seeing signs of willingness on Arafat's part to put down the population, and I think that we need to aid, and to discern that there is... Here a certain opportunity for us to enter into an accelerated process of dialogue with the Palestinians."
US officials echoed these sentiments and praised the PA for its "movement towards enforcing the ceasefire".
In the wake of the events in Gaza, the PA has banned all demonstrations and public gatherings organised against the US-led attacks on Afghanistan. In related developments, around 10 key leaders of the intifada have been arrested by the PA over the last week, all of them appeared on a list supplied to the PA by Israel.
Despite the PA crackdown, popular sentiment remains highly supportive of continuing the intifada and overwhelmingly opposed to the US-British military attacks on Afghanistan.