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Palestinians Confident Arafat Will Not Meet Israeli Demands

By Mary Curtius
LOS ANGELES TIMES -- ramallah, west bank

To the outside world, Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat’s choice hardly could seem more stark: He either hunts down Islamic militants or risks destruction of his regime by Israel.

But in this West Bank commercial and governmental center, hours before Israeli helicopter gunships destroyed Arafat’s personal helicopters in the Gaza Strip, the Palestinian leader’s dilemma seemed not nearly so black and white.

Even as they braced for a wide-ranging Israeli military retaliation, Ramallah residents expressed faith that Arafat will resist the Jewish state’s demands and withstand whatever it throws at him.

“He is Arafat,” said Elen, a shoe-store owner who declined to give her last name. “He is a survivor.” No one seemed to believe that the symbol of Palestinian nationalism had reached a moment of truth that would force him to take decisive action or radically alter his policies.

Arafat would run the risk of civil war if he carried out the all-out assault on Islamic militants that Israel and the Bush administration are demanding, Palestinians said. That pressure followed Palestinian suicide bombings and gunfire over the weekend that left more than two dozen Israelis dead and more than 200 wounded.

When Arafat cracked down on Islamic militants in 1996, their popularity was at a nadir because negotiations with Israel seemed to be progressing toward creation of a Palestinian state.

Today, the peace process is dead and the popularity of Islamic militant organizations rivals Arafat’s own. Hamas, the largest Palestinian Islamic militant group, has formed an armed alliance with elements of Arafat’s own Fatah movement.

“I don’t think Arafat has reached the point where he has made the decision: I will do what has to be done,” said Khalil Shikaki, a Palestinian pollster and political analyst.

Instead, Shikaki and others said, Arafat is more likely to take limited steps aimed at temporarily reining in militants as he hunkers down to absorb the Israeli army’s strikes.