Palestinian ceasefire holds despite gun-battles

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The Independent Online

The ceasefire between the Palestinians and Israel staggered on yesterday, clinging to life despite violations, differing interpretations, and a consensus that it is a sickly infant doomed to an early grave. Two days after Yasser Arafat yielded to pressure to join it, the truce was threatened by fighting in the southern Gaza Strip, which medical officials said wounded 18 Palestinians, of whom two were shot in the head.

The Israeli army said two soldiers were lightly injured in the battle, in Rafah close to the Egyptian border. Each side blamed the other for starting the flare-up. The Israelis are said to have used rockets and the Palestinians fired three mortars.

Under intense international pressure, Mr Arafat announced the ceasefire on Saturday after a suicide bomber killed 20 people, mostly Israeli youngsters, outside a disco in Tel Aviv on Friday. Facing a wave of revulsion in the West, and eager to stave off ferocious Israeli military reprisals, the Palestinian leader said he would do his utmost to enforce it.

Ten days earlier, Israel began a patchy unilateral ceasefire, after being widely condemned for using F-16 jets to bomb targets in the West Bank, killing 11 Palestinians, in answer to another suicide bomber, who killed five Israelis in Netanya.

Yesterday, the truce seemed agonisingly fragile. The extent to which it is backed by the various Palestinian guerrilla factions was unclear. Some leaders of the mainstream Fatah movement ­ whose paramilitaries say they are fighting to end the Israeli occupation of east Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza ­ have expressed support.

But even this seems open to interpretation. One Fatah official said the ceasefire applied only to areas under total Palestinian administration, less than a fifth of the West Bank.

A spokesman for the Islamic-nationalist militants, Hamas, who seek the destruction of the Jewish state, was categoric. "We do not accept the ceasefire," said Dr Mahmoud Zahaar, who represents Hamas's political wing in Gaza. "We have no option but to continue the intifada."

The ceasefire will be hard enough for Yasser Arafat and his security forces to implement, given their own ineffectiveness, the opposition of some militant elements, and the pent-up anger and frustration within the Palestinian population caused by the Israeli siege on their towns and villages.

But it will be harder still unless he can quickly show Palestinians that he has received something in return, in particular, a total and genuine freeze on all Israeli settlement building. Yet Ariel Sharon, Israel's prime minister, has rejected an all-out freeze and will be very reluctant to change his stance. To do so ­ at least at this stage ­ would infuriate the already increasingly hostile far right in Israel, including elements within Likud, settlers, and Russian immigrants who were the main victims of the Tel Aviv atrocity.

He is certain to be accused of violating his often-stated position that he will not "reward" Palestinian violence. Palestinians say the illegal state-sponsored settlement construction in the occupied territories is tantamount to rewarding Israeli military violence.

The Palestinian case is bolstered by the Mitchell report which states that Israel should freeze all settlement construction activity, including the "natural growth" of existing settlements" and says a ceasefire "will be particularly hard to sustain" unless Israel does this. But the process has been badly undermined by the US Secretary of State, Colin Powell, who has allowed Israel to reinterpret the report by saying the settlement freeze is negotiable.

He repeated this view in an interview on CNN's Late Edition. "The American position is that we believe that two sides have to discuss this expanding-of-existing settlements issue," he said. "We tried to at least leave this as an issue to be resolved between the two sides."

With the Americans systematically, and repeatedly, undermining this key Mitchell recommendation, it will be hard to persuade Yasser Arafat to implement others, such as arresting and jailing Islamic guerrilla activists, and punishing those attacking Israel.

This is a central Israeli demand, but one which PLO officials say is hard to put into action. They say arresting militants, would further damage the battered standing of the Palestinian Authority would damage its already battered standing, and people would accuse it of acting as stooges for Israel. Islamic militants despise the Palestinian Authority as corrupt, and they are opposed to the resumption of peace negotiations with Israel. Ordinary Palestinians are increasingly likely to balk at the truce unless it produces swift results. "We have done the first security step in the Mitchell report [the ceasefire]," said Hassan Abed Rabbo, a senior Fatah official in Bethelem. "But if Israel doesn't implement the next steps, such as stopping settlements and ending closures, then there will be an even bigger explosion."