Arafat fights to stop Hamas revenge attack

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The Independent Online
PALESTINIAN leaders are trying hard to avert a bomb attack by Hamas, the Islamic militant group, in revenge for the killing of one of its bomb makers. They fear it would give Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, the chance to finally drop any pretence of carrying out the Oslo accords.

Hamas is still threatening to seek vengeance for the mysterious death last week of Muhyideen al-Sharif, whose body was found after explosives, which he may have been preparing, blew up in a garage near Ramallah on the West Bank. Palestinian police at first said he was shot to death and his body planted at the scene of the explosion. But Yasser Arafat, the Palestinian leader, is eager to prevent any fresh suicide bombing campaign which would undermine his efforts to get more support from the US. Saeb Erekat, the head of the Palestinian negotiating team, said: "We feel that peace is dying. Netanyahu is creating a fear among the Israelis in order to justify non-execution of agreements that he himself has signed."

Mr Erekat added that Mr Arafat sent a message last week to senior officials of Hamas which said: "Do not even dare think of revenge. We do not want to see terrorist attacks, and we don't want Israelis to be killed in revenge for Sharif's killing."

The Palestinian police have also come round to the Israeli theory that bullets in Mr Sharif's body may have been blown there by an accidental explosion, and were not fired, as was previously claimed, three hours before the bomb went off.

It is not clear, however, if Mr Arafat can head off an attack by Hamas. Abdel Aziz Rantisi, Hamas spokesman in Gaza, says: "Netanyahu is lying when he tells the world Sharif was assassinated as a result of inner strife within Hamas. We know who murdered Sharif and we will hunt him everywhere."

It is not clear if even the Hamas leaders in Gaza can control the next move. The military wing of Hamas in the West Bank has in the past shown signs of either acting autonomously or at the direction of more hard-line leaders based in Jordan or Damascus.

They are less vulnerable to pressure from Mr Arafat's security services and are also less influenced by the fear among the Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank that Israel will once again damage them economically in the wake of a bomb attack, by sealing off the areas in which they live.