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Arafat aide calls for trade boycott on Israel

Yasser Arafat's Palestinian Authority called on Palestinian traders and consumers at the weekend to counter the Israeli blockade of the West Bank and Gaza Strip by boycotting Israeli products. Mohammed Rashid, Mr Arafat's economic adviser, told reporters: "We want the Israeli producers to feel the impact of the economic siege imposed on our people."

The aim, he acknowledged, was not to bring the Israeli economy to its knees, but to push Israeli businessmen to lobby their Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, to ease the restrictions he introduced after the 3 July suicide bombing which killed 14 Israelis in a Jerusalem market. The Palestinian ban would be implemented gradually, starting this week.

"We want to share with others the negative consequences of Netanyahu's decisions," Mr Rashid added, "and those others are the Israeli suppliers and producers." He estimated that Palestinians spent an average of $9m a day on Israeli goods, about 96 per cent of the imports into the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Independent Israeli economists say the true trade figure is about half that cited by Mr Arafat's adviser. One of them, Simcha Bahiri, co-author of an Israeli-Palestinian study of the economic benefits of peace, said yesterday: "The Palestinians can hurt the Israeli economy a little, but only a little. Some individual companies may be hit. Palestinian imports account for barely 1 per cent of Israeli production."

Ghassan Khatib, a Palestinian political commentator, feared that the embargo would do more damage to the Palestinian economy than the Israeli. "This measure," he said, "comes out of desperation. The Palestinian Authority feel they should do something, but they don't know what to do."

Israeli officials dismissed the embargo as irrelevant. "We don't think there's anything to be gained by exchanging threats," a government spokesman, Moshe Fogel, said. "We imposed the closure as a result of concrete security concerns."

Behind the scenes the joint Israeli-Palestinian security committee, set up last week under American auspices, got down to work yesterday. Co-operation between the respective police forces on Saturday swiftly brought to justice three Palestinian thieves who murdered an Israeli taxi driver and tried to sell his car for spare parts. A Palestinian court sentenced two of them to life and a third, a minor, to 15 years.

But publicly Mr Arafat was still refusing to yield to "Israeli dictation." The Palestinian President accused Mr Netanyahu of launching a vicious war to humiliate the Palestinian people and undermine the 1993 Oslo Peace Process.

While the politicians wrangled, 44,000 out of 110,000 Palestinian public sector workers have not been paid their July wages because Israel is holding back tax revenues it collects on behalf of the Palestinian Authority.

Up to 100,000 day labourers are barred from reaching their jobs in Israel. All on top of the 25 per cent estimated to have been unemployed before the closure.