Israel uses the iron fist

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THE stone pavement is still scorched where somebody set fire to the green wooden doors in the 700-year-old gate known as the Bab al-Ghawanima, through which worshippers enter the north-west corner of the platform on which stand al-Aqsa and the Dome of the Rock, the two holiest muslim shrines outside Mecca and Medina.

The fire started on Thursday morning. "It happened after the gate closed at nine o'clock and after the guards had gone home," said a Palestinian shopkeeper in the street which leads to the gate. He added: "It must have been religious Jews. They threw a Molotov cocktail at it."

The burning of the door at Bab al-Ghawanima was the start to a day which saw the most violent confrontation between Israeli troops and Palestinian demonstrators in 18 months. By evening Israeli soldiers had shot dead nine Palestinians and wounded 180. Israeli commanders said their soldiers only fired live rounds when their lives were in danger. But the dead included Zamal al-Wahidi, a 55-year-old medic and father of 14, who was sitting beside the driver in a clearly marked ambulance in Gaza. He was hit three times in the chest. The trajectory of the bullets indicated that they came from an Israeli military position 200 yards away, according to a foreign observer. Two eight-year-old Palestinian boys were also shot dead.

Palestinians make the point that these are not chance rounds fired by frightened conscripts. They say Israeli troops are interspersed with snipers who know exactly what they are firing at. The Palestinian leadership seems surprised at the death toll. Yasser Arafat has been wooing the US and the Europeans, and sees confrontation on the streets as providing Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, with an alibi not to implement the Oslo accords. The demonstrations on Thursday were to commemorate al- Nakba or the Catastrophe, the Palestinian name for the events of 1948 in which 700,000 of them lost their homes in present day Israel. The organisers had stressed that the marches were going to be peaceful. But peaceful demonstrations are difficult within the Palestinian enclaves, because they are so small. In the Gaza Strip there are a million Palestinians and only 5,000 Jewish settlers, but their settlements cut across the main road. The same is true in Hebron, where the Israeli army defends 200 settlers in the centre of a town inhabited by 120,000 Palestinians. In private Israeli officers admit that these small settlements, surrounded by Palestinians, are a recipe for friction.

If violence has been limited since Benjamin Netanyahu took office, it is partly because Israeli troops have been sparing in their use of live ammunition. This was why there were few casualties in the demonstrations against the Israeli settlement at Har Homa, called Jebel abu Ghneim by Palestinians, last year.

Yoav Galant, the Israeli commander in Gaza, took a different decision, saying: "If they choose the path of violence, they will have to pay the price for this violence." He ordered live rounds to be used; tanks were in place before the demonstrations started. According to one report the Israeli troops used teargas against the demonstration at Gush Khatif, at the southern end of the Strip, and when the demonstrators responded with stones the troops, instead of stepping up to rubber bullets, immediately used live rounds. The first Palestinian to die was killed at the very beginning of the demonstration. The failure of Mr Netanyahu to offer condolences over the deaths of the Palestinians has amazed American officials. The foundation of his strategy is the belief that Israel is powerful enough to give the Palestinians little. He appears to see last week's demonstrations as a manoeuvre by Mr Arafat. "It is very simple and very easy to whip up a frenzy of hatred and violence," he said. "It is important for the Palestinians to understand that we will not countenance this."

The Israeli leader is in a confident mood. The US has backed away from talk of an ultimatum over a limited withdrawal by Israel from some 13 per cent of the West Bank. Mr Netanyahu is insisting that he will not go beyond nine per cent. According to diplomats, the Americans are convinced that Mr Netanyahumade his original offer expecting Mr Arafat would turn it down. When the Palestinians accepted the US terms, which were close to Israel's, the Israeli Prime Minister was wrong-footed.

The use of live rounds by Israeli troops in Gaza was probably intended to underline the cost of protests to the Palestinian leadership. But the failure of the Washington talks means that diplomatic avenues for the Palestinians are being shut off. The Gaza deaths may be the beginning of a new round of violence.