Yasser Arafat likes his helicopters. Real leaders, military leaders especially, get around by helicopter, and nothing suited the style of the khaki-clad Palestinian boss better than dropping in and out of places with a backdrop of rotors loudly beating, whipping up the air. Choppering between the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, Arafat's two disconnected realms, had the added advantage of sparing the Palestinian leader the humiliation of passing through Israeli checkpoints on the ground below.
But the three Soviet-made Mi8s that were parked at Arafat's compound in the Gaza Strip are in pieces now, destroyed by Israeli missiles in retaliation for a shocking new round of suicide bombings that killed 25 Israelis in the two days before. The Israelis also shot up various facilities of Arafat's Palestinian Authority, deployed troops and armor within striking distance of the office in the West Bank city of Ramallah where Arafat was working, and later bombed the same bureau. It was a bit like the magician's trick of tossing knives so that they just miss the target. Israel's message to Arafat was clear: we brought you here, and we can take you out.
This is what it has come to. After eight years of on-and-off attempts to make peace with the Palestinians through Arafat, the Israelis have officially declared him, in effect, nothing but a terrorist. The U.S., which had moved considerably in Arafat's direction in recent years, has made it clear it is no longer interested in trying to cool the Israelis' blood. The Israelis swore they weren't actually going to kill Arafat, but they were threatening him with something he's apt to dread as much: irrelevance. With the U.S. behind Israel, the threat was real, more real than any other Arafat has faced since his triumphant return home from exile in 1994, following the historic Oslo peace accords. Says a U.S. official: "We are now trying to create a moment of truth for Arafat."
The latest deterioration in relations began on Saturday night, Dec. 1, when two Palestinian bombers struck a busy cluster of cafes along a pedestrian mall in Jerusalem, killing 10 Israelis, not one of them older than 21. The next day, another terrorist blew himself up on a bus in the northern city of Haifa, killing 15 riders, mostly old people. The perpetrators--as well as the bomber who exploded outside a Jerusalem hotel on Wednesday, killing himself alone and blowing his head through a window of the establishment's fifth floor--were from the militant Islamic organizations Hamas and Islamic Jihad rather than factions loyal to Arafat. But because of his lenient treatment of those groups during the current 14-month-long intifadeh, Arafat is held accountable by Israel for their terrorism. "We regard Mr. Arafat as guilty of everything," Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon told TIME late last week.
When Israel struck back with helicopter gunships and warplanes, killing 23 Palestinians over the course of the week, Arafat fled his Ramallah office and hid at another, undisclosed location. The loss of his choppers left him pinned down in Ramallah, unable to move to his main Gaza headquarters or anywhere else. Still, the Israeli army made clear it was only playing around, so far. "Pyrotechnics," a senior army officer called the attack on the helicopters. "It's a show for the television and public opinion."