There's little compassion in Gaza for Arafat's ex-partners in peace

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The Independent Online

The Israeli tear-gas grenades were falling like Chinese fireworks when my mobile phone rang. There had been a bomb in Jerusalem. One of the Palestinian policemen watching the stone-throwers was listening to my call. "How many dead?" he asked. "Two," I said. The man looked disappointed. "Is that all?" There's not much compassion in Gaza for the enemy that used to be Yasser Arafat's "partner in peace".

The Israeli tear-gas grenades were falling like Chinese fireworks when my mobile phone rang. There had been a bomb in Jerusalem. One of the Palestinian policemen watching the stone-throwers was listening to my call. "How many dead?" he asked. "Two," I said. The man looked disappointed. "Is that all?" There's not much compassion in Gaza for the enemy that used to be Yasser Arafat's "partner in peace".

Indeed, only hours after Messrs Arafat and Barak had promised to call a ceasefire, the Palestinian gendarmerie had lost all interest in restraining the young men who were marching through Karni with their plastic shopping bags full of stones and their glass bottles of petrol. A young girl in a scarf with staring eyes was walking steadily towards the Israeli guns, announcing quietly that she wanted to be a "martyr". All day she said she had been thinking of this.

The Israelis had pulled three of their tanks back from the Karni crossroads in the morning but a few boys had set fire to tyres on the main settlers' road, and within minutes the usual crowd was gathering, the usual ambulances herded in the rear for their dismal cargoes. The first young men to fall seem to collapse of their own accord. We heard no shots. Were the Israelis using silencers? Then a rubber-coated steel bullet cracked on to the roof of the ambulance I was standing beside and the whole crowd ducked in a great animal movement, as if a giant gust of wind had suddenly blown over them.

There were a lot of Palestinian police. And Palestinian soldiers. And Palestinian plain-clothes cops from several of Mr Arafat's 13 intelligence agencies. Just once they drove a truck down to the Israeli gate - a border fence that marked the actual frontier of Israel - and scooped up a few of the boys and drove them back to the petrol station at the top of the hill. Otherwise, they just cradled their rifles, sat on the dunes of earth and rubbish, and watched the tear-gas canisters careen out of the sky.

An hour later, I ran into one of Mr Arafat's Beirut veterans, a man I saw on the perimeter of the besieged Lebanese capital 18 years ago, watching now the very same army which - almost two decades before - he had fought as a young man. "The Israelis must be made to understand that they will have to pay the price for their occupation," he said. "I hear Palestinians say, 'We'll give them another martyr'. But I say to them 'Why not make the Israelis pay for our martyrs?"'

Behind the scrubby olive trees, three Israeli Merkava tanks lay hull down in the soft earth, their barrels traversed, a jeep-load of Israeli troops firing off grenades from the bushes to the west. Palestinian youths darted through the trees, sling-shots in hand, creeping forward and then running for their lives at the pop-pop-pop of gunfire. Palestinian television was still showing the video of Mr Arafat warmly greeting Shimon Peres in Gaza. But the same television station was urging the people on to the streets.

Mr Arafat in control? Is that really the issue? Watching the crowds streaming towards the mist of tear-gas, it was clear yesterday that it is the street that controls events in Gaza. Mr Arafat's role - his only role - is to follow those events and guide them when he can, into what for him are politically useful directions. "He knows that there will be a further escalation," my old Beirut acquaintance said. "He also knows we will have to suffer a lot more before the Arabs can be forced to threaten an oil-price rise."

Talking to the crowds at Karni, there was a common and dreadful theme in their narrative of events: that the Israelis would - if they continued to overreact grotesquely to the Palestinian insurrection - commit a massacre.

"A week ago, they fired a Laaw (a light anti-armour weapon) at a bus," one of the khaki-uniformed men claimed. "It happened at the Nizarim junction. The missile just touched the back of the bus, but a few millimetres further and it would have exploded inside, and there were 40 children on board."

At Karni, an elderly Palestinian from the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, the almost bankrupt institution set up in 1948 to protect the original Palestinian refugees, approached the would-be girl "martyr" with the scarf and the staring eyes. Repeatedly, he pleaded with her not to approach closer to the Israelis, not to invite them to shoot her. "You will die for nothing - you have something better to give to live," he said with emotion. And the girl suddenly stopped, and turned, and climbed silently into the UN man's car to be taken home.

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