Hamas supporters defy Arafat

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The Independent Online

Hundreds of Hamas supporters clashed with Palestinian riot police outside the home of the leader's group Thursday in a first sign of resistance to Yasser Arafat's intensifying crackdown on Islamic militants. A Hamas supporter was killed in an exchange of fire at the scene, witnesses said.

The Palestinian leader is under growing Israeli and US pressure to rein in the Hamas and Islamic Jihad groups that have sent dozens of suicide bombers to Israel, including four this week. Israel told Arafat he must arrest leading militants quickly or face a resumption of Israeli reprisals.

"This is the last chance (for the Palestinians) to do what they are supposed to do," said Raanan Gissin, an adviser to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres said he told Arafat he had 12 hours to arrest key militants, but Gissin denied that Arafat had been given a specific deadline.

US President George W. Bush said Arafat must "use everything in his power to prevent further terrorist attacks in Israel" and that the Jewish state could not be expected to conduct negotiations under fire.

In Arafat's boldest move yet against Hamas, the movement's founder and spiritual leader Sheik Ahmed Yassin was placed under house arrest. Palestinian officers set up checkpoints around his Gaza City home on Thursday, clashing on and off for hours with more than 1,500 Hamas supporters.

Arafat's crackdown was accompanied by a flurry of diplomatic activity Thursday: Egypt sent its foreign minister, Ahmed Maher, on a new mediation mission to Israel; US envoy Anthony Zinni held separate talks with Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres and Arafat; and Maher was to meet with Arafat later in the day.

Maher's sudden visit came even though Egypt has shunned high–profile ties with Israel since Sharon, a hard–liner, became Israel's prime minister in March.

Palestinian security officials said a total of 180 Islamic militants have been rounded up since the arrest sweep began Sunday. Some of the arrests were carried out overnight. In the West Bank town of Nablus, Palestinian police posted officers outside two mosques late Wednesday, checking the ID cards of worshippers against a list of wanted people. No arrests were made at the mosques, but police said they found several kilos of explosives in a Nablus hideout of a Hamas militant.

Israel has complained that those detained were lower–level activists, and that the planners of attacks are still at large. Peres said Wednesday he told Arafat he should arrest 36 leaders of the militant movements.

US envoys have handed the names to Arafat in recent meetings, Gissin said.

In Gaza City, police told Yassin, the Hamas leader, that he was under house arrest, barred all but his relatives from visiting him and cut his phone lines.

In response, protesters threw stones at police vans and officers on foot and set a police jeep on fire. After daybreak, officers wielding clubs and holding up shields charged forward, sending the crowd running. Both sides occasionally fired automatic weapons in the air, and witnesses said there also was a brief exchange of fire in which a 21–year–old Hamas supporter, Mohammed Silmi, was killed.

Palestinian security officials confirmed that Silmi was critically injured and died of his wounds Thursday morning.

"We in Hamas are not going to accept the Palestinian Authority's arrest campaign and we will not keep silent," said one of the protesters, Izzedine Abu Ghaya, a 22–year–old student at the Islamic University in Gaza City.

Abdel Aziz Rantisi, one of the Hamas leaders who has gone underground since the start of the arrest sweep, posted a message to the group's wanted men on a website linked to Hamas, saying they should not turn themselves in to police.

Arafat's Fatah movement later staged a counter–demonstration in support of the Palestinian leader. A senior Arafat aide, Tayeb Abdel Rahim, told the crowd of several thousand that they must stand up to those trying to "sabotage the decisions of the Palestinian leadership," an apparent reference to the Islamic militants.

In another confrontation, Palestinian gunmen fired late Wednesday at a Jewish neighborhood on the outskirts of Jerusalem to protest the arrest of a leading militant by Arafat's police. No one was hurt.

Arafat's moves follow two days of Israeli military strikes which Israeli officials said were aimed at forcing him to take tough action against terrorists.

Retaliating for the weekend suicide bombings that killed 25 people in Jerusalem and Haifa, Israeli warplanes targeted Palestinian security and police buildings on Monday and Tuesday, and the Israeli Cabinet declared that Arafat's Palestinian Authority is an "entity that supports terrorism." Another suicide bomber blew himself up in central Jerusalem on Wednesday, lightly injuring two people.

Up to now, Arafat has hesitated to confront Hamas and Islamic Jihad, the militant groups opposing peace with Israel, for fear of setting off a civil war.

Peres said Arafat called him to complain that Israeli restrictions were preventing him from moving his forces around. After the weekend bombings, Israeli forces cut off West Bank towns and banned Palestinian traffic on West Bank roads. Also, Israeli helicopters destroyed Arafat's helicopters in a Gaza hangar, marooning him in Ramallah in the West Bank.

Restarting his truce mission, Zinni, the US envoy, met with Arafat and Palestinian security officials on Thursday. On Wednesday, Zinni met Sharon, who told him "only pressure on Arafat will bring him to make a strategic decision to abandon the path of terror and carry out all of Israel's demands and his commitments," a statement from Sharon's office said.