Palestinian soldiers and police in Gaza and the West Bank have received orders to shoot back if Israel tries to reoccupy the areas from which it has withdrawn under the Oslo peace accords, a senior Palestinian official has said.
"Our forces will fight, of course. They have already received their orders," said Marwan Barghouti, the general secretary of Fatah, the main Palestinian political movement, on the West Bank yesterday. It is the first time a senior Palestinian leader has spelt out what will happen if Israel fulfils its threat to re-enter Palestinian towns and cities in response to the suicide bombing campaign.
Mr Barghouti, a veteran leader of the Palestinians in the West Bank, said the difference between Gaza when Israeli troops left it in 1994 and today is that it is now held by 20,000 armed Palestinian police. He added that the actual number of armed men is greater. In Ramallah, a town just north of Jerusalem where Mr Barghouti has his office, he said that "officially we have 1,000 men under arms", but he thought the real figure was about 5,000.
Israel has hitherto winked at the fact that Yasser Arafat, the Palestinian leader, has brought in more armed forces than allowed under the Oslo agreement. Officially described as police, they are often experienced combat troops. Israel did not object to their presence because it wanted to strengthen Mr Arafat against Hamas, the Islamic militant movement.
By saying publicly that Palestinian troops have orders to fight an Israeli reoccupation or incursion, the Palestinian leadership is presumably trying to avert any attack.
Shimon Peres, the Israeli Prime Minister, has been trying to prevent any military move into Palestinian-controlled areas because this would end the Oslo agreement. But, if there are more suicide bombs, he may be unable to resist public demands for the Israeli army to return. There is no doubt that the Israeli army could fight its way in, but probably only at the cost of heavy casualties.
Relations between the self-rule Palestinian Authority and Israel have deteriorated rapidly in the two weeks since the first suicide bombers blew themselves up on 25 February. West Bank leaders say their 1.2 million people are under unprecedented pressure because Israel has stopped all movement into or out of 465 villages and seven towns. The curfew was lifted for 12 hours yesterday for people to buy food or get medical attention.
Gaza is also under tight siege with Israeli naval vessels turning back Palestinian fishermen. In the markets, customers are given a bunch of flowers free with every purchase because growers are prevented from exporting them. Mr Arafat says he will personally bring back flour to Gaza before he goes to the international conference, to be attended by President Bill Clinton, John Major and at least 20 other world leaders, on the threat to the peace process. It opens tomorrow in the Egyptian resort of Sharm el-Sheikh.
Mr Arafat has intensified his drive against the political and military wings of Hamas in the last week. Three leaders of Izzedine al-Qasim, the military arm of Hamas, regarded by Israel and the US as the men behind the suicide bombs, have been arrested. However, five suicide bombers are reported to have already received explosives and to be awaiting orders to strike. At the weekend a statement said to have come from the bombers said they were calling off a proposed truce.
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