"We will not allow anyone to drag us into a civil war," declared Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas on June 8.
His disloyal opposition -- Hamas, Islamic Jihad and Yasser Arafat's Al Aqsa suicide brigades -- sent a different message to Abbas and other Arab leaders who had just met with President Bush in Aqaba.
The three terrorist groups, acting jointly, sent a trio of suicides dressed in Israeli uniforms into an Israeli army post near Gaza. They killed four soldiers before being shot dead themselves. The terrorist front then released a video showing the killers posing with assault rifles and a Quran, and informed the world that "the blood of Palestinians says that we are unified in the trench of resistance."
Could there be any more dramatic declaration of Palestinian civil war?
On one side is Abbas, duly elected by the Palestinian Authority's Legislative Council, reviled by the terrorist front because he believes more war on Israel will bring only further misery to Palestinians.
On the other side is the fundamentalist Hamas-Jihad-Aqsa front, whose sworn mission is to drive the hated Jews out of the Middle East. United as never before, these fundamentalists are determined to overthrow Abbas and any "moderates" able to negotiate a peace.
Playing both sides as usual is Arafat, helping the front undermine Abbas before that veteran negotiator builds a local following that would end the war. Arafat tried to make Abbas seem like an Israeli-American stooge at the recent summit by having an aide hint that American pressure edited a deal-breaking "right of return" out of the Palestinian's remarks.
Thus we have one side, the terror front, abetted by Arafat, openly waging civil war to take over the Palestinian cause, while the other side -- the Palestinian Authority, newly headed by Abbas -- protests that it won't let anyone "drag us into a civil war." The side that is fighting is winning.
But how can there be a civil war if Palestinians are not killing Palestinians? Simple: the rebel front kills Israelis, forcing Ariel Sharon to order retaliation against terrorists, and Palestinians, both terrorists and bystanders, are casualties -- by rebel Palestinian design.
The rebels know that no government under sustained terrorist attack can afford to remain supine. Israel must continue to strike back until the new leadership of the Palestinian Authority takes control of the killers within its own population.
The main excuse for inaction in the past has been that the Palestinian police force -- a sizable, well-equipped army, aware of the hideouts and logistics of the rebels -- is supposedly demoralized, beaten down by Israeli counterattacks, helpless against the fanatic rebels of the front.
Maybe, maybe not. Giving Abbas the benefit of the doubt, Sharon directed his defense minister, Shaul Mofaz, to work out a step-by-step arrangement with Muhammad Dahlan, Abbas' new security chief.
Dahlan is to choose a given area to assert loyalist Palestinian Authority control. The Israeli Defense Forces will pull out. As 100 percent effort to stop terror in that area is demonstrated, on to the turnover of the next village or city, until rebel-held neighborhoods are shrunk and the Palestinian Authority gains internal control -- the necessary prerequisite to statehood.
Will Sharon respond to the diminution of terror by dismantling unauthorized hilltop outposts, removing travel restrictions and otherwise making life easier? Of course; despite what he calls "1,000 days" of the intifada, Sharon has the national backing to make concessions that do not undercut security despite anguished outcries from longtime supporters.
Can Abbas build similar backing to confront and defeat the terrorist front -- or will he settle for a meaningless "cease-fire," allowing terror to rearm and prolong his people's agony?
He will get no help from Europe, Russia or the United Nations, which will berate Israel and treat with Arafat. He may get grudging financial aid from the Saudis and security help from Egyptians, only because President Bush, after liberating Iraq, has timed his intervention so he can be the credible "steward of accountability."
But no comprehensive outside imposition will bring durable peace to the Middle East. It will follow the Palestinians' victory over a terrorist minority that dragged them into civil war.
William Safire is a columnist with The New York Times.
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