Leaders hostage to the violence of armed militias

Blame game goes on as Arafat and Barak struggle to keep control ahead of Arab crisis meeting in Cairo
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The Independent Online

International appeals for an end to the blame game in the Middle East were angrily cast aside yesterday after the bloodiest violence between Israelis and Palestinians in a fortnight. Neither side declared this week's Sharm el-Sheikh ceasefire dead, but it was gasping for life amid accusations that both sides had failed to live up its terms.

International appeals for an end to the blame game in the Middle East were angrily cast aside yesterday after the bloodiest violence between Israelis and Palestinians in a fortnight. Neither side declared this week's Sharm el-Sheikh ceasefire dead, but it was gasping for life amid accusations that both sides had failed to live up its terms.

Palestinian officials said that most of their towns, villages and refugee camps remained inaccessible and cut off from food and medical supplies, despite Israel's commitment under the agreement to take "immediate, concrete" steps to end its closure of the occupied territories.

Israel pinned the blame on Yasser Arafat, the Palestinian leader, despite strong evidence of the uprising running beyond his control. The gunfights and riots were the "direct result of the behaviour of Yasser Arafat and the Palestinian Authority," Avi Pazner, an Israeli government spokesman said.

Although the leaderships of both sides appear to want to keep the agreement alive, they are locked in a spiral of deepening mistrust and ill-will towards each another, and are held hostage to violence by armed militias - the Jewish settlers and the Tanzim - outside their control.

Israel has begun publicly floating the possibility that it will unilaterally declare its borders, leaving the Palestinians with a patchwork of broken-up, economically isolated, territory.

The worries of Ehud Barak, the Israeli Prime Minister, are also mounting by the day. He is politically weak, although the mood of unity in a national crisis appears to be diminishing his opponents' appetites to bring down his government. A Maariv-Gallop poll of public support published yesterday found he is trailing 21 points behind his hardline predecessor Benjamin Netanyahu (who has 48 per cent) after being neck and neck six weeks ago. The same poll put him 10 points behind Ariel Sharon (41 per cent), the hawkish Likud leader who triggered the violence by visiting the Haram al-Sharif, or Temple Mount, a site sacred to Jews and Muslims.

The Knesset returns from its summer recess in nine days, when it will decide whether to go to early elections, or to prop up the government. Mr Barak has the support of only a quarter of the 120-member chamber. He must decide whether to try to cobble together a coalition similar to the one he built after his election landslide in 1999, or whether to form an emergency government with Mr Sharon.

Mr Barak also faces declining public confidence in his military. In two weeks, three soldiers and a reserve colonel were seized by Hizbollah guerrillas and two Israeli soldiers were lynched by Palestinians after driving into Ramallah.

Embarrassed Israeli military officials sought yesterday to explain how they had allowed a group of settlers to walk into a highly-sensitive area in the West Bank, setting off a firefight with Palestinians which lasted hours and forced the Israelis to bring in helicopter gunships while civilians were evacuated. A rabbi and a Palestinian were killed, and more than 20 people were injured. Brigadier Benny Gantz, who took charge of the rescue operation, said the local commander who gave permission for the settlers to visit a point overlooking Jacob's Tomb, in the Palestinian town of Nablus, had thought the trip would be safe. "Maybe he made a mistake," he said.

Palestinian officials say the clash began when a group of armed settlers began firing into a refugee camp. Israeli forces have renewed the blockade on Nablus after easing it earlier to allow free movement within the West Bank.

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