Palestinian militants embraced by Arafat

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The Independent Online

A struggling Yasser Arafat has moved to take full control of the Palestinian intifada by giving an organisational role to militant Islamic groups, which are vehemently opposed to the Oslo peace negotiations and committed to guerrilla war against Israel.

A struggling Yasser Arafat has moved to take full control of the Palestinian intifada by giving an organisational role to militant Islamic groups, which are vehemently opposed to the Oslo peace negotiations and committed to guerrilla war against Israel.

The Palestinian leader has evidently concluded that the peace process is over for the foreseeable future, allowing him to try to reassert his weakened authority by forging ties with anti-Oslo radicals from Hamas and Islamic Jihad.

His strategy has infuriated Israel, whose military commanders met their Palestinian counterparts yesterday for the first time in a fortnight. A spokesman for the Israel Defence Forces said Mr Arafat had given "a green light to murderers". It will also complicate plans floated by Mr Clinton to bring the sides together again in another attempt at peace.

Until recently, Mr Arafat regularly jailed members of Hamas and Islamic Jihad, partly in response to pressure from Israel, which was anxious to prevent a repetition of the Hamas suicide bombings that claimed scores of Israeli lives in the mid-1990s.

But the eruption of the intifada nearly a month ago served notice to Mr Arafat and his top aides in the Palestinian Authority of the ferocity of emotion on the streets, where Hamas and other radical elements enjoy the support of at least a third of the population. It was clear from early on that Hamas was playing a prominent role in the protests alongside Mr Arafat's Fatah faction.

Seeking to ride the storm, Mr Arafat released many of them from prison - up to 100, according to Israel - although his officials later rearrested some. It has now been disclosed that he has given Hamas, Islamic Jihad and other radical factions seats on decision-making steering committees in the West Bank and Gaza that meet daily to organise protests.

Forging ties with the militants offers Mr Arafat several advantages. It is another step in his attempt to shuffle to the centre-stage of the uprising. It also gives him a better chance of pre-empting any plan by Hamas to launch a guerrilla attack in Israel, which could be disastrously damaging to the Palestinian cause internationally just as the lynching of two Israeli soldiers was.

There are also benefits for Hamas, which does not relish being in opposition at a time when Palestinians are unifying in the struggle against a common enemy.

In a parallel move, several of Mr Arafat's closest officials - bureaucrats until recently known as "the Oslo class" because they are seen as sell-outs of the national cause - have begun to appear in public as ardent supporters of the uprising.

The urgency of forming a common front with the Islamic factions was driven home to Mr Arafat a fortnight ago when thousands of Hamas demonstrators took to the streets of Gaza City and burnt down businesses selling alcohol. Fears abounded that they were taking control of the street.

Ghassan Khatib, a leading Palestinian political analyst, said yesterday: "This is the Fatah way of co-opting Hamas out of a position of potential popularity. They want to put Hamas under their wing."

Mr Arafat's efforts to forge a united front appear to be faring better than those of Ehud Barak. Signs are amassing that the bulk of Ariel Sharon's Likud party is opposed to entering an emergency government - leaving the Prime Minister the difficult task of building a coalition without it, or being brought down in the Knesset next week and going to early elections.

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