Arafat police hold 150 in hunt for bombers

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in Jerusalem

Palestinian police arrested 150 supporters of Islamic Jihad and Hamas in Gaza yesterday as the PLO chairman, Yasser Arafat, responded to Israeli demands that he act against those responsible for two suicide bomb attacks on Sunday which killed seven Israelis and one American.

At the same time a military court jailed a member of Islamic Jihad for 15 years for training children, as young as 10, to be guerrillas.

The bombings at the Israeli settlements of Kafar Darom and Netzarim have deepened the confrontation between Mr Arafat's Palestine Authority and the Islamic militants, who accuse it of being a cat's-paw of Israel. In Khan Yunis, southern Gaza, Palestinian police exchanged shots with Hamas gunmen, accused of killing collaborators with Israel, before arresting two of them.

"Anyone suspected of involvement [in the bombing] will be arrested," said a PLO official, Tayeb Abdel Rahim, in Gaza after an urgent meeting of security officials. The Palestine Authority, which has 17,500 troops and police in Gaza, responded to the last suicide bomb attack, at Beit Lid on 22 January, by a few well-publicised arrests, but most of those detained were later released.

The Israeli Prime Minister, Yitzhak Rabin, and his cabinet, whose chances of re-election in 1996 are diminishing with every bomb, have banned Palestinian cars from using the main roads around Jewish settlements.

This will cause maximum inconvenience to the 850,000 Palestinians in Gaza, but it is unclear if it will do much for the security of the 4,000 Israelis who have settled there since they were first encouraged to do so by Golda Meir after the 1967 Six-Day War.

Mr Rabin responded to Beit Lid by calling for "separation" and even a fence between Israelis and Palestinians, but this has turned out to be a political slogan rather than a policy. The idea of a fence has been widely derided because, where it does exist around Gaza, it is frequently stolen for scrap.

Mr Arafat, in strictly military terms, could crush Hamas and Islamic Jihad momentarily by using his powerful security forces. He has already, in Gaza and the West Bank, transformed his Fatah organisation into a militia often operating as the Preventive Security Intelligence. But he could not eradicate the Islamic militants - supported by some 20 per cent of the population - and an all-out attack would probably precipitate a Palestinian civil war.

Neither Palestinian nor Israeli security is in a position to exert total control over the Palestinian population. As long ago as 1985, a study of the occupied territories by an Israeli colonel, Yigal Carmon, concluded: "The true dimensions of the security problem in the territories are beyond the capabilities of the Shin Bet [internal security] and the IDF [army]." This was even before the intifada, or Palestinian uprising, of 1987.

Although Israel is refusing to withdraw its troops from West Bank towns and cities, the belief that, in the long term, they are going means that Israel has already in effect ceded authority to Mr Arafat.

"Unlike the Israeli Shin Bet, the Palestinian intelligence has no need to recruit collaborators," wrote Smadar Peri, an Israeli journalist.

But, despite the failure of Israeli troops to withdraw, Mr Arafat's authority has been growing. Preventive Security recently announced they had recovered goods in east Jerusalem stolen in Hebron; they are not meant to be operating in either place.

Mr Arafat's denunciations of the bombings have altered the balance of power between him and Israel in his favour, because his co-operation represents Israel's only chance of stopping the bombers.

But at the same time, the attacks are progressively disillusioning Israelis with the peace accords and weakening the government that signed them.