Angry end to a day that began with fresh hope

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The Independent Online

Early yesterday morning, it looked as though the Israeli government and the Palestinians had pulled back from the brink. Israeli tanks were being pulled back. Palestinian policemen were restraining rock throwers.

Early yesterday morning, it looked as though the Israeli government and the Palestinians had pulled back from the brink. Israeli tanks were being pulled back. Palestinian policemen were restraining rock throwers.

But by last night, Israel was dismissing with anger a statement by the Palestinian leadership that was supposed to usher in a ceasefire.

The day - the 36th since the start of the Palestinian intifada - had started so hopefully. The Palestinian leader had agreed with the former Israeli Prime Minister and veteran peace negotiator, Shimon Peres, in the early hours of yesterday that Israel and the Palestinians would simultaneously declare a truce in the violence that has cost 168 lives in five weeks.

The two men had agreed to enact the Sharm el-Sheikh memorandum, the unsigned ceasefire brokered by Bill Clinton in Egypt just over two weeks earlier. It had stalled within hours of being unveiled.

A statement announcing an end to violence was expected by both leaders in the early afternoon, but was delayed after a car-bomb close to a city market, claimed by Islamic Jihad, killed two Israeli Jews.

Instead of agreeing a form of words with the Israeli Prime Minister, Ehud Barak, Mr Arafat's press office unilaterally issued a statement claiming the Palestinians had exercised restraint throughout the crisis. It called on the masses "to maintain the unity of their stand and to continue their popular expressions through peaceful means". The goals, the statement said, were: full Israeli withdrawal to the border that existed before the June, 1967, war; a right of return to what is now Israel for Palestinian refugees of the 1948 war; and the establishment of a Palestinian state with Jerusalem as its capital.

"We cannot accept this," the Israeli government spokesman Nachman Shai insisted. "Why doesn't Arafat go on the air and read a statement putting an end to the violence?"

Ministers were persuaded to give Mr Peres, the only Israeli leader whom Mr Arafat still trusts, one last chance to open a way back to a negotiated peace. But there was violence on both sides. The bomb claimed two Israeli lives, but two Palestinians were added to the long list of those shot by the Israeli army.

Was Mr Arafat's statement a face-saving way of calling for a ceasefire? And, if it was, can the Palestinian leadership still rein in the fury of its own people, who have suffered so many "martyrs"? Will the ceasefire be destroyed by an outburst of sectarian violence.

Israel's army has been shooting demonstrators dead with no regard to international law. But it has been generally cautious on its attacks on Mr Arafat's headquarters, issuing warnings beforehand and limiting the number of rockets its helicopters fire. If the violence continues, the pressure on Mr Barak to use tougher military tactics will grow.

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