Arafat's triumph crumbles

Palestinian truce holds, but peace deal in danger as Israelis kill two
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ISRAELI troops shot dead two Palestinian youths in separate incidents involving stone-throwing demonstrators in the Gaza Strip and the occupied West Bank yesterday, but a negotiated truce between the Palestinian leadership and Islamic militants seemed to be preventing further inter-Palestinian clashes.

Staff at Gaza's Ahli hospital said soldiers firing plastic bullets fatally wounded Yasser al-Zayyan, 17, when demonstrators stormed the Netzarim checkpoint for the second time since 13 people were killed on Friday in battles between the Palestinian authorities and militants. Guerrillas in a speeding car shot and wounded an Israeli soldier at the same chekpoint. In the West Bank town of Tulkarm, Israeli soldiers fired on demonstrators who blocked roads and hurled stones, killing one.

Businesses throughout the West Bank were shut down by a strike to mourn Friday's casualties. But out in the streets angry crowds massed outside Palestinian police stations.

In the grubby surgeries of Gaza's Shiffa Hospital Palestinian bullets were still being cut from Palestinian chests. Burning tyres filled the air with putrid smoke and gunshots rang out over the headquarters of Yasser Arafat, chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organisation. All over the strip mourners buried the victims of what Gaza is calling ``The Palestine mosque massacre''.

The recriminations over who started Friday's gun-battle, in which Palestinian police opened fire on protesters, have already begun. ``It was Israeli spies - collaborators,'' said relatives in the hospital. ``It was Arafat's police who started it - Arafat traitors,'' said the supporters of the Islamic militant groups, Hamas and Islamic Jihad. ``It was Hamas who started it - striking at our national unity,'' said supporters of Mr Arafat. Everyone in Gaza knows, however, that it matters little who fired the first shot. What matters is whether anyone will learn from the violence that followed.

Some say the hatred that has spilled out on the streets is an act of Palestinian self-mutilation - a desperate cry for help from a stricken society. Others believe it is the first round in a Palestinian civil war. Others, however, say the violence is simply the inevitable result of a peace deal that cannot work. If it doesn't work in Gaza, it will not work anywhere.

For nearly five months Mr Arafat has been trying to prove to his people that the deal he signed with Israel would bring hope for the future. Gazans have been patient, prepared to wait for their dreams to be fulfilled, knowing Israel would block progress at every turn.

But the people wanted something - anything - to make up for their past sacrifices. Those who rose up against the Palestinian police and Mr Arafat were not just Islamic militants intent on destroying the agreement. ``It was all the ordinary people who threw stones. It was not just Hamas and Jihad. It was people with no money and no jobs,'' said a Palestinian student. ``My brother was not Hamas or Jihad. He was a Palestinian citizen,'' said Zuher Abu Assi, as his brother lay groaning from bullet wounds.

Since Mr Arafat's arrival economic misery has only deepened in Gaza as Israel has barred Palestinians from jobs in Israel. International donors have reneged on pledges of help and Palestinians have felt increasingly ignored by politician ``peacemakers'' and their own leadership. Many Palestinians believe Mr Arafat has signed a deal which forces him to do Israel's bidding. ``Arafat does what Rabin tells him. His police are worse than the Jews,'' a young man said.

If yesterday's truce is to hold, Mr Arafat must soon prove such people wrong.

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