More shot dead as ceasefire collapses

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The Independent Online

At least four more Palestinians died in Israeli gunfire in the West Bank and Gaza yesterday as both sides turned their back on the ceasefire deal agreed in Sharm el Sheikh only five days ago. Palestinians declared a "weekend of rage" after nine deaths on Friday, the worst day of bloodshed seen in the three-week outbreak that has left 120 dead, mostly Palestinians.

At least four more Palestinians died in Israeli gunfire in the West Bank and Gaza yesterday as both sides turned their back on the ceasefire deal agreed in Sharm el Sheikh only five days ago. Palestinians declared a "weekend of rage" after nine deaths on Friday, the worst day of bloodshed seen in the three-week outbreak that has left 120 dead, mostly Palestinians.

The Palestinian leader, Yasser Arafat, back in Cairo for the emergency Arab League summit which ends today, said his people were facing "the worst kind of mass killings".

The Egyptian President, Hosni Mubarak, who saw his joint ceasefire efforts with US President Bill Clinton at Sharm el Sheikh evaporate almost immediately, blamed Israel for bringing the peace process to a standstill by "terrorising innocent civilians and killing defenceless children", but the summit is unlikely to take action beyond severing trade links with Israel.

The Israeli Prime Minister, Ehud Barak, is awaiting the outcome of the summit before deciding whether to declare a "time out" in the peace process, in practice already moribund.

Three youths were shot dead by Israeli soldiers yesterday in separate incidents at Khan Younis in the Gaza Strip and Ramallah and Jenin in the West Bank, while a 35-year-old taxi driver was killed in Hebron, apparently by a stray bullet. An Arab guerrilla was also found dead after shooting across Israel's border from Lebanon, although Hizbollah, which regularly used to clash with the Israelis before they withdrew from south Lebanon, said it was not involved.

Palestinian sources hinted Mr Arafat would order his policemen, and gunmen allied to his Fatah party, to stop firing on Israeli forces, probably when he returns home tonight.

If he does, the Israelis will say this proves he can prevent armed clashes if he chooses to, and that he has been using the violence to put pressure on them and ensure the summit supports him.

Mr Barak's government was smarting from a UN General Assembly resolution, passed yesterday, condemning its "excessive use of force". The US and Israel voted against the motion, calling it "one-sided", and Britain and Germany abstained. Many other European nations supported it.

Criticised abroad and weak at home, the Israeli government has appeared as unenthusiastic as the Palestinians about the ceasefire deal. Immediately after the unwritten agreement, the Israeli army appeared to be trying to avoid excessive casualties among the Palestinian rioters who were hurling stones, bottles and petrol bombs at its positions.

Its idea of an appropriate response was still lethal for some - rubber-coated steel bullets easily kill at short range, and the same is true of the .22 bullets some snipers began using - but one or two deaths a day was not enough to keep the passions of the intifada at the pitch they reached the previous week. The number of young stone-throwers had dwindled, and their confrontations with Israeli troops had a ritual air.

The main reason for the loss of momentum was the lynching of two Israeli reservists in the police station at Ramallah 10 days ago. Television pictures of one of the killers showing his bloody hands to the mob shocked the world and shamed many Palestinians. The Israeli government could have taken some of the heat out of the crisis, but Mr Barak is trying to win parliamentary support from Ariel Sharon, the hardline Likud leader who set off the intifada when he visited one of Islam's holiest places, Temple Mount in Jerusalem's Old City, with a huge security escort.

The following day, seven Palestinians died in clashes below Temple Mount, setting off a cycle of bloodshed.

The loss of life in what Palestinians call the "al-Aqsa intifada", after the mosque on Temple Mount, is far more rapid than in the six-year uprising which led to the start of the peace process in 1993. That fact has silenced Palestinians who might want the process to continue. And polls show Mr Sharon has more support than Mr Barak, (although both are left behind by the former prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu).

Unless he can lure Mr Sharon aboard, Mr Barak has no hope of a majority when the Knesset returns in a week and he has little choice but to maintain a tough stance.

Two of the groups with an interest in keeping the temperature high are the armed Jewish settlers and the gunmen of the Tanzim, the armed wing of Mr Arafat's Fatah. Their battleground has been the West Bank town of Nablus.

Settlers shot dead a Palestinian olive farmer near Nablus last week. And the next day Tanzim gunmen fired on settlers who inexplicably had been allowed to stray, escorted by some soldiers, on to a hillside above the town. A rabbi bled to death as Israeli forces tried to rescue them. And one of the gunmen also died. By Friday the intifada was back in full swing. Palestinian demonstrators came out of the mosques in force, and five were shot dead by Israeli troops who no longer appeared to be trying to minimise injuries.

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