For Gazans clampdown is just a ploy

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The 800,000 Palestinians in the Gaza strip are cynical about the promised clamp-down by PLO chairman Yasser Arafat on militants of Hamas and Islamic Jihad. When his police closed the offices of the Islamic Jihad weekly al-Istiqlal last week, Gazans said they believed the aim of the raid was to provide compelling pictures of Palestinian security in action for Israeli television.

Four top-level meetings since the Beit Lid bomb killed 21 Israelis on 22 January have produced extraordinarily little. Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Mr Arafat have met three times without agreeing anything. President Bill Clinton's all-day attendance at another conference in Washington on Sunday shows his anxiety that what was portrayed as one of the administration's few foreign policy successes is unravelling.

Israeli officials admit that even if Mr Arafat did everything they want, he still could not stop suicide bombers getting through. They say that the much of the logistics and organisation of the bombing is done in the West Bank where Israeli security is still in control. Tougher measures by Mr Arafat in Gaza might impress Israeli public opinion, but it does little else.

The problem about isolating the organisations behind the suicide bombers is that their actions command widespread support among Palestinians. A poll by the reputable Centre for Palestine Research and Studies in Nablus shows 46 per cent of 1,089 Palestinians interviewed support military action against Israel and 33.5 per cent oppose attacks. Mr Arafat's own organisation, Fatah, is almost evenly split with 40 per cent for bombing and some 42 per cent against.

In a minor breakthrough, Israel agreed in talks in Jericho yesterday for the leader of the Palestinian Authority to be elected separately from its ruling council. In the past the Israeli negotiators had opposed this as giving Mr Arafat too much presidential authority, but if his popularity is as great as the poll suggests he will win both elections easily.

Mr Arafat's political and military position within the Palestinian community remains very strong. Hamas and Islamic Jihad may have the support of committed militants but Palestinian security services are now about 15,000 strong, according to Terje Larsen, the UN special co-ordinator for autonomous territories. This far exceeds the 9,000 men under arms allowed by the 1993 peace agreement.

While the peace talks remain frozen negotiations are vulnerable to another bomb attack or random killings. An Israeli taxi- driver, Refael Cohen, 35, was stabbed to death on the bypass road to Ma'ale Adumim settlement east of Jerusalem yesterday. Israeli taxi-drivers are to demonstrate outside Mr Rabin's house today.