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Christopher's shuttle shows Mid-east gains

THE US Secretary of State, Warren Christopher, ended his Middle East shuttle in Damascus yesterday after a week in which many symbolic steps forward were achieved. He made progress in the two areas in which Israel is seeking peace: its relations with the Palestinians, since 1967 under its occupation; and its dealings with its Arab neighbours.

On Thursday, Mr Christopher paid a call on the Gaza court of PLO chairman Yasser Arafat to underline the continued US backing for the Palestinian-Israeli accord. Mr Arafat would have preferred a tangible US expression of support, such as even a tiny fraction of the financial assistance the US gives Israel each year, but all Mr Arafat received was a lecture on the need for greater financial accountability.

On the Israel-Arab front he assisted at the meetings of the Jordanian Prime Minister, Abdel-Salam al-Majali, and Israel's Foreign Minister, Shimon Peres, for the first public visit by an Israeli official to Jordanian territory. This was a prelude to the first public meeting on Monday in Washington of King Hussein of Jordan, and the Israeli Prime Minister, Yitzhak Rabin.

Both sides have warned against expectation of any peace treaty but the meeting is important in itself as a measure of how far the Arab- Israeli peace process has moved. Two years ago it would have been unthinkable.

Jordanian officials also take heart from the low-key response by Syria. The Syrians have always warned against any separate deals by individual Arab states which would either weaken the Arabs' collective bargaining power with Israel or, more pertinently, undermine Syria's ability to satisfy its interests.

The Israelis, who have been urging the opening of a secret channel to Syria, have in effect obtained an alternative one through Mr Christopher. His shuttling between Jerusalem and Damascus has replaced the official negotiations in Washington as the main arena for substantive discussions between the two sides. At issue, as always, is the extent and timetable for any Israeli withdrawal from the Golan, and the nature of any peace Syria would be prepared to make with Israel.

Mr Peres has said that Israel has never made any claim to sovereignty over the Golan. This has long been Israeli policy. The 1981 extension of Israeli law to cover the Druze and other inhabitants of the Golan, captured from Syria in 1967, fell short of outright annexation. But Israel has seldom made public reference to the territorial status of the area, and Mr Peres's comments must be seen as an attempt to mollify the Syrians.

At the same time, the Egyptian President, Hosni Mubarak, said in an interview published yesterday that he will soon travel to Damascus in a bid to convince Syria's President, Hafez al-Assad, to launch direct talks with Israel.

'I am going very soon to Damascus to persuade President Assad to adopt a new approach to try to solve the problems with the Israelis,' he told Yediot Aharanot newspaper

'The time has come to look to the example of Egypt, Jordan and the Palestinians and to undertake direct and public negotiations with Israel.'

HEBRON (Reuter) - Israeli soldiers shot dead a Palestinian in the West Bank town of Nablus yesterday and wounded at least 17 more Arabs in Hebron, Palestinian sources said. The Israeli army said it was checking the reports.

The army said three bombs exploded in Jewish parts of Hebron, causing no casualties or damage. An army spokeswoman said a report by Jewish settlers that a child was injured was untrue.

Palestinian sources said Israeli soldiers shot and killed Mahmoud Jaber, 19, outside a Nablus mosque after Friday prayers. Palestinians said the Hebron clashes spread to several parts of the town and soldiers fired live bullets, rubber bullets and tear-gas into the crowd.

(Photograph omitted)