Arafat Plays the Religion Card

Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat is making Jerusalem the focus of intensified terror in order to accentuate the religious dimension of the 10-month-old conflict with Israel.

This was the accusation leveled at Arafat this week by top Israeli government analysts following a spate of attacks — shootings, bombings, stabbings and rioting — that have brought a new level of fear to Jerusalem residents.

The analysts believe Arafat’s immediate aim is to use the "religion card" to convene yet another Arab summit meeting.

Though several meetings of the Arab world’s leadership since the Palestinian uprising began failed to result in significant economic aid for the Palestinian Authority, Arafat hopes that focusing on the religious overtones of the conflict with Israel will convince the Arab League to provide tangible economic support, according to this view.

This week, violence continued at some of the highest levels since the Palestinians began their uprising last September.

Erupting across the West Bank and Gaza Strip and in Jerusalem, it threw into sharp relief just how thoroughly the U.S.-mediated cease-fire, which Israel and the Palestinian Authority agreed to just six weeks ago, has failed.

If Arafat’s latest goal is to cast the conflict in a religious mold, events Sunday dealt him something of a setback, as Israeli security officials did not fall into his trap.

After days of belligerent statements from Palestinian and Israeli Arab leaders had stoked their passions, Palestinians on the Temple Mount rained rocks onto Jewish worshipers marking Tisha B’Av on Sunday at the Western Wall.

Israeli police subsequently entered the Temple Mount compound, firing tear gas and stun grenades in skirmishes with dozens of Palestinians. During the confrontations, 15 policemen and 20 Palestinians were hurt. The disturbances forced the evacuation of Jewish worshipers from the Western Wall Plaza.

Just the same, the police action did not lead to any Palestinian deaths — something Arafat could have milked for propaganda value in Arab capitals. Given the number of people involved and the hot tempers, observers — recalling the panicky deployment of Israeli police on the Temple Mount the morning of Sept. 29, 2000 (the day after then-opposition leader Ariel Sharon paid a high-profile visit to the site) — said it was a wonder the clashes did not take a more deadly turn.

Instead of using tear gas and stun grenades — which proved effective Sunday — police last September responded to the Palestinians’ stones with bullets, marking the beginning of the Palestinians’ Al- Aksa Intifada.

Sunday’s altercation was only one in a series of incidents in recent days that have put Israelis on edge. Security forces went on high alert this week following a series of terrorist attacks in Jerusalem, none of which caused serious injuries, including a pipe bomb exploding in a public park next to the King David Hotel on Wednesday, a small bomb exploding in a a supermarket in Jerusalem on Monday, and last Friday, a bomb discovered inside a watermelon on a parked bus in Jerusalem.

On Monday, in response to the series of bombings, Israeli helicopters attacked the main Palestinian police headquarters in Gaza City. The army said it targeted a building "used to manufacture weapons and mortar bombs."

Tensions were further fueled Monday after an explosion killed six activists from Arafat’s Fatah faction near the West Bank city of Jenin. Palestinian officials said Israel killed the six, who were wanted by Israeli officials for alleged involvement in terrorism.

Israeli security officials denied involvement, saying the blast may have been a "work accident" while the six were assembling a bomb.

Tuesday, eight Palestinians — including at least two senior Hamas officials and two children — were killed in an Israeli helicopter attack on one of the terrorist group’s offices in the West Bank city of Nablus.

Israeli sources said the Hamas members were planning attacks in the Jerusalem area, according to the Israeli daily Ha’aretz. The government expressed regret for the death of the two children.

Sheik Ahmed Yassin, Hamas’ spiritual leader, said Tuesday that Israel would pay a heavy price for the attack.

Meanwhile, diplomatic efforts to halt the violence held out little hope of imminent success.

Israeli sources spoke of disagreement within the Bush administration, with Secretary of State Colin Powell anxious for an immediate agreement on a monitoring observer team, and the president and other policy-makers less eager for a debate with Sharon about the composition of the team while strife on the ground still rages.

White House spokesman Ari Fleischer appeared to reflect the latter approach when he said Monday that a lasting cease-fire was the "necessary prerequisite."

"Only at that time will the question of monitors possibly come up," he said. "It would have to be agreed to by both sides."

As the week wore on, however, agreement by both Israel and the Palestinian Authority about almost anything seemed highly unlikely.

JTA correspondent Naomi Segal in Jerusalem contributed to this report.