Gaza watches and waits as Abbas tries to end violence

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The green-bereted second lieutenant in charge of the Palestinian National Security service's third infantry unit was giving little away yesterday - and certainly no information on the amounts of weaponry or men freshly deployed in northern Gaza.

For if the Palestinian Authority (PA) implements its threat to act against militants firing rockets into Israel across the security fence round Gaza, much of the task will fall to him and the men under his command. More than 25 of them were stationed for the first time yesterday at the nearest Palestinian military outpost to the border, in Beit Hanoun's Boura district, from which many of the rocket attacks have been launched.

Only a few of the men in khaki fatigues were carrying their their semi-automatic weapons. For now there was nothing for them to do except smoke, chat, play a little volleyball - and wait. Answering only to the name of Abu Saleh, the officer was cautious, if friendly, as he stood at the gates of the local National Security base - three times bombarded by Israeli forces during the past four years.

As the Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas continued intensive efforts in Gaza City to agree a ceasefire with the armed factions, he declared: "We are ready with all our resources to implement any political decisions. We expect instructions during the next 48 hours." He didn't want to talk about politics but, as a Palestinian as well as a soldier, he said, "the national interest is to have quiet".

But he also underlined the importance of the resumed security talks with the Palestinians which Ariel Sharon announced yesterday. National Security had lost 17 men to Israeli fire during the current intifada. "We cannot reach certain areas near the border because the Israelis fire on us. If we receive guarantees from our leadership that the Israelis won't fire at us then I will be out there doing the job minutes afterwards." Otherwise, he said, they may only be able to stop the militants who unwisely pass by his men's military positions.

In those "certain areas" yesterday, the orange groves on a hill that looks across to the Israeli border town of Sderot - and a tank that protects it - Nasser Abu Jarmeh, 57, who guards the crop from thieves, was in no doubt about the urgency of Mr Abbas's task. "They have destroyed my life," he said, "Israel and the factions."

When the Israeli army last summer bulldozed around half the 225 acres of orange groves to make it easier to spot militants launching rockets, they also demolished the six-room lean-to that Mr Jarmeh had built for his wife and six children. The absentee landlord halved his £50 per month salary and he is now dependent on meagre PA and UN handouts to pay - or more often not pay - a rent of £80 per month for a home in town.

Caught between the militants - whom he routinely sees launching rockets, some of which fall short and explode in the groves - and retaliatory fire from Israeli tanks, he is impatient for Mr Abbas to halt the violence.

His friend, Mohammed Abu Salah, 56, still griefstricken at the loss of his 17-year-old unarmed son Ibrahim, a college student, shot dead in an Israeli ambush in the groves last summer, agreed but added: "This can't be done in a single night. Sharon must give Abu Mazen [Mahmoud Abbas] a chance."

Not everyone in Beit Hanoun is of like mind. Said Abu Salah, 42, believes his farm has been deliberately destroyed four times in as many years by Israeli bulldozers and tanks - fire from one of which seriously wounded his son - because he was jailed several times during the intifada in the 1980s. He declared: "The people of Sderot demonstrated and said they want to come and kill us. What will Abu Mazen do about that? Everyone wants quiet but not at the expense of the Palestinian people."

His brother Assad was more forthright, saying he believed the armed intifada must continue. "The Israelis complain about 20, 30, 100 rockets. But they see nothing wrong that we have been under occupation for so many years. The violence has a cause. Who made it?"

Hassan Sadr, 52, a construction contractor, cited - unusually for a Palestinian - an example from Israeli history to make the case for action against the militants. Had David Ben-Gurion not ordered a famous attack on the Altalena, an arms ship used by the Jewish rebel faction Irgun in 1948? Reflecting widespread conflict fatigue here, Mr Sadr added: "We are interested in peace but Sharon wants to stay in power so he is not interested. He benefits more from the problems than we do. Even if he continues, we should stop [the violence] so the world can see we are not the aggressor."