Israel prepares itself for war

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The entire Middle East is bracing itself for the expiry tonight of an Israeli-imposed peace ultimatum, amid fears that the region could be engulfed in war if Yasser Arafat fails to end the wave of violence in which scores have died.

The entire Middle East is bracing itself for the expiry tonight of an Israeli-imposed peace ultimatum, amid fears that the region could be engulfed in war if Yasser Arafat fails to end the wave of violence in which scores have died.

The Israeli Prime Minister, Ehud Barak, warned the Palestinian leader yesterday that peace negotiations would be at an end if the bloodshed continued beyond tonight, and that he would instruct his forces to "act accordingly".

"If [the Palestinians] prefer not to choose peace ... we will know how to respond," Mr Barak said shortly before beginning the 25-hour fast that marks Yom Kippur, the most sacred day of the Jewish year.

There are signs, however, that ending the Palestinian uprising is beyond Mr Arafat's control, and that other Palestinians are striving to seize the initiative on the streets of the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

As tensions rose sharply between Israel and Syria over the capture of three Israeli soldiers, field leaders from Mr Arafat's Fatah organisation were on the streets of the occupied territories distributing leaflets calling for the intifada to be stepped up. Fatah officials reportedly said they were not acting on Mr Arafat's orders, but those of local leaders. "The intifada will escalate. This is the beginning of a new phase," said a senior official in the West Bank town of Ramallah.

If his ultimatum to Mr Arafat fails to end the unrest, Mr Barak is expected to form a government of national unity, embracing the right-wing Likud party - whose chairman, Ariel Sharon, provoked the fresh violence with a visit to the Haram al-Sharif (Temple Mount) in Jerusalem. One option being considered by Barak advisers is to offer to make Mr Sharon a minister without portfolio, along the lines of the Israeli government just before the 1967 war.

All prospect of peace would then be over, leaving Israel facing prolonged hostility on three fronts - from Hizbollah in south Lebanon, which has captured three of its soldiers; from the Palestinians in the occupied territories, and possibly from an angry and restless Arab population inside Israel.

Israel began Yom Kippur - the Day of Atonement - smarting from a UN Security Council resolution condemning its use of force in the conflict, and worrying that war may again erupt on the holiday, just as it did in 1973. The resolution - in which the US abstained - failed to deter hundreds of thousands of Moroccans from taking to the streets in Rabat for one of many pro-Palestinian demonstrations held in the Arab world over the last few days.

The violence seemed to dip yesterday - another ceasefire was declared in Gaza - but there were ominous signs that hardline Jewish settlers in the West Bank are mobilising. A Palestinian was shot dead by a settler, and there were reports that at least six Arab shops were burnt. An Israeli died after being hit by a stone.

Israel has dispatched hundreds of troops to its northern borders, and has warned Lebanon and Syria of strong reprisals over the capture of its soldiers. In an effort to obtain their release, Israel asked the Red Cross to deliver a message to Hizbollah leaders in Beirut, which could open negotiations between the two enemies.

Scarcely 24 hours after the three men - two Jews and a Druze - were seized by the guerrillas to exchange for 19 prisoners in Israel, Henri Fournier, the head delegate of the International Red Cross in Beirut, paid a personal visit to Hizbollah officials. He handed over the undisclosed Israeli message, stressing that his own organisation sought a "humanitarian" resolution for all the hostages - the 19 Lebanese in Israel as well as the three Israelis. The Lebanese include Sheikh Abdul-Karim Obeid, a Hizbollah cleric seized by Israeli troops more than a decade ago, and Mustafa Dirani, a former member of the Amal militia who was involved in the taking of Western hostages.

Mr. Fournier said the ICRC's role was "to act as a facilitator, not a negotiator" but added that he had demanded "immediate access" to the three captured Israeli soldiers.

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