Gaza keeps its finger on the trigger

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The Independent Online
Aid officials in Gaza warned that an explosion of popular anger by Palestinians may erupt before the end of renewed peace talks as Yasser Arafat, the Palestinian leader, paid his first official visit to Israel,

Mr Arafat was upbeat after flying by Israeli army helicopter to visit Israeli President Ezer Weizman at his home in Caesarea, saying: "Negotiations will be the tool to resolve our differences." Asked whether Palestinian police would no longer fire at Israeli troops, he replied: "This is my permanent order to our policemen."

But even as Mr Arafat was speaking, Palestinian negotiators at Erez, the northern exit to the Gaza strip, were saying that Israel was trying to renegotiate agreements already reached on Hebron and Israeli troop redeployment.

"The Israeli side is still working to cancel the agreement, which threatens to undermine the whole peace process," said Hassan Asfour, the Palestinian negotiator. "It seems the Israelis did not understand or have not understood the political explosion yet." The first session of the talks on Monday lasted only 15 minutes and Israeli radio said only the intervention of Dennis Ross, the US Special Middle East Peace Envoy, prevented a Palestinian walkout.

Israel is asking for serious modifications in the Hebron redeployment plan, which should have been implemented seven months ago. Under the original agreement Israel would have kept control of 20 per cent of the Palestinian city of 100,000, in order to protect 400 settlers. Israel is now proposing to keep troops on hills overlooking the city centre, limiting weapons for Palestinian police and creating buffer zones to divide the Israeli troops from PLO police in the city.

Aid officials in Gaza say that the increasing political frustration and economic deprivation will lead to renewed popular demonstrations before the end of the talks at Erez which are meant to last 45 days. "We advertised for one sanitary officer and we had 11,108 applications," said one official. "We had to bring them to our central office in a truck." He said people have little left to lose.

Mr Arafat's wide smiles at Caesarea, which do not seem to be based on any optimism on the part of his negotiators, may be to ensure that Benjamin Netanyahu, the Prime Minister of Israel, will be held responsible by the US and west Europeans for any breakdown or failure to reach agreement.

President Weizman said he and Mr Arafat spoke about "the recent tragedy of gunfire and losses on both sides, and we decided this kind of thing cannot happen again". Mr Arafat's only previous visit to Israel was to express condolences to the widow of the assassinated Yitzhak Rabin.

On returning from Caesarea Mr Arafat swept through the Erez checkpoint in a convoywhile Palestinian policemen armed with submachine guns stood with their backs to the cleared road. Despite a recent collision between two vehicles containing Mr Arafat's bodyguards - in a crash that killed two guards - the convoy keeps up speed. But apart from Mr Arafat the Erez crossing point is deserted with almost no Palestinians being allowed to work in Israel.

In Gaza, Mahmoud Zahar, the spokesman for Hamas, the Islamic movement, is waiting for the talks to fail."We don't think this negotiation will bring anything," he said, "The option of the Intifada has come back." He added that the atmosphere now in Gaza was similar to that when the Intifada broke out in 1987.

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