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Hope burns brighter than the barricades: 'No going back' on Israel peace

ON THE walls of the central mosque in Khan Younis, in the Gaza Strip, the posters told the story of a bloody week. In bold red script, Hamas, the Islamic Resistance Movement, announced that its 'military wing' had killed an Israeli in the West Bank in revenge for the death of a Hamas gunman shot dead by Israeli soldiers.

'Arafat is collaborating with the Israelis. This is why this is happening,' said one young Palestinian. Another said the violence was to be expected, but it would not halt the peace process: 'Resistance to the occupation will go on until the occupation is over.'

Tyres were burning and faded Palestinian flags were clouded in palls of black smoke. Masked men, who had declared a 'truce' after the September peace agreement, were marching in the streets. It looked like the height of the intifada again.

Meanwhile, on the West Bank yesterday Jewish settlers opposed to Israel's peace accord with the Palestine Liberation Organisation shot and seriously wounded an Arab at a roadblock and opened fire on Arab houses in Hebron.

Just 10 days before the deadline for Israeli withdrawal from Gaza and the West Bank town of Jericho, as a first stage of the move towards Palestinian self-rule, the omens for peace did not look good. Images of clashes were flashed on TV screens around the world and Yitzhak Rabin, the Israeli Prime Minister, suggested the deadline for the pull-out might be delayed.

While the foundations of the agreement may be shaking, however, it is premature to talk of collapse. The immediate problem facing negotiators centres on a crucial flaw in the peace deal: its failure to answer the security problems of Jewish settlements which will remain in place after Palestinian self- rule. Palestinians contend that the presence of 130,000 Jewish settlers in the West Bank and Gaza is incompatible with any prospect of Palestinian sovereignty. The agreement states that they can stay, creating a security nightmare. As the recent killings have illustrated, the settlers and the Israeli soldiers who protect them are a flashpoint for violence. No agreement has been reached on the dividing lines of Palestinian-settler jurisdiction.

Early optimism has been undermined by strategic blunders by both Mr Rabin and the PLO chairman, Yasser Arafat, since September. Mr Rabin's number one priority should have been to help boost support for Mr Arafat and the PLO, so that Palestinian opponents to the deal, particularly Hamas, would be weakened.

Mr Rabin has failed, however, to grant the easiest concessions demanded by the PLO. He could, for example, have released more political prisoners, unblocked streets, and unsealed houses. Palestinians on the ground see no change.

Mr Rabin seems to have miscalculated by setting out to 'clean up' militant Palestinian opposition groups, particularly Hamas, who oppose the deal, while seeming to protect Fatah, the mainstream PLO faction which supports the agreement. In the occupied territories, where 'Palestinian unity' is all, this has created new sympathy for Hamas and undermined the credibility of Fatah. Fatah leaders in Gaza, though keen to see Hamas out of the picture, know that the only way to isolate their opponents is to ensure the success of the peace deal.

Mr Arafat has angered supporters by persisting with political patronage and failing to allow the emergence of a viable Palestinian authority. As a result, the Gaza Strip and West Bank appear unprepared for self-rule. More dangerously, perhaps, Mr Arafat has failed to take up the banner of democracy so eagerly waved by Palestinians in the occupied territories, spreading fears that he may not hold elections, but institute a 'PLO state'.

Although the problems appear immense, the process is moving forward, painfully. Both Mr Rabin and Mr Arafat have too much at stake to accept early defeat, and both are prepared for another summit, perhaps next Sunday, to try to overcome the obstacles. A short delay in withdrawal would not threaten the deal. In Israel, support for the peace agreement is holding up. In the occupied territories, selective bloody images distort the true mood. Although youth leaders and gunmen showed their frustration last week in the worst clashes for six months, there was no mass demonstration. On 13 September a surge of hope was stirred in Gaza by the unexpected political breakthrough. Khan Younis was the first place to celebrate on the day of the signing, and the germ of hope has not been crushed.

The majority of Palestinians in Gaza have no idea what the future holds. Most know that the transition will be violent and confused. But they say again and again: 'It will happen - there is no going back.'