On the West Bank with a licence to kill: Since Yasser Arafat joined the peace negotiations the Panthers have become both the hunters and the hunted. Sarah Helm reports from Kufur-Rai

CAPTAIN TOM is closing in on Abu Samed, and Abu Samed knows it. The Black Panther bravado still splutters from his mouth. He can still kill, and does. But there is a desperation about him, and a thin film of sweat shines on his face under the dim lights of yet another safe house.

These Palestinian gunmen have never been so hunted as they are now. Thirty-eight 'Panthers' have been killed by Israeli forces in the past three years and the rate of killing has been stepped up to about three a month.

Abu Samed is always on the move. In the tiny villages around Jenin, in the wilder reaches of the Israeli-occupied West Bank, Captain Tom, local chief of the Israeli security service, the Shin Bet, has tasted their blood.

Soldiers under his command, disguised as Arabs, raided a house and killed two Panthers in nearby Arrabeh two weeks ago, wiping out the cell in that village. On the grave of Ahmad Daqqah, one of the Arrabeh dead, a sign reads: 'The Black Panthers salute their leader.' In the tumbledown alleys of Kufur-Rai, just two miles away down a winding lane, six Panthers are still alive, but they all know Captain Tom is now moving towards them, in what he must hope will be the final kill.

At a roadblock three days ago, Captain Tom stopped a Kufur-Rai man and showed him the pictures of the dead Arrabeh Panthers. 'He said we are coming to get you next.' Since then the village has been stilled by fear. The hunt in the Jenin hills is one of the foulest legacies of the intifada, the Palestinian uprising against Israeli occupation, which started exactly five years ago today when thousands took to the streets in protest, armed with stones.

As the intifada fractured, cells of armed gunmen like the Black Panthers took up the cause, encouraged and financed at first by underground intifada leaders, known as the Unified Command, and by PLO factions outside. Abu Samed, 27, says the intifada gave people hope. But the Palestinians only had stones, while the Israelis had an army. 'The Israelis were doing brutal things which the Nazis did to the Jews. They were burying people alive.'

The Black Panthers, like their counterparts, the Fatah Hawks in the Gaza Strip, are allied to Fatah, the mainstream of the Palestine Liberation Organisation, and look to Yasser Arafat, the PLO chairman, for their lead. Another such group, based in Gaza and allied to the Islamic resistance group Hamas, on Monday killed three Israeli soldiers.

But since Mr Arafat joined the peace negotiations in October last year, the Panthers have been more isolated, their activities increasingly random. Holed up in hideaways the gangs have turned on their own communities, hunting down and slaughtering suspected Palestinian collaborators. Abu Samed has the blood of six suspected collaborators on his hands and has been wanted by the Israelis for a year.

It is not easy to find the Black Panthers, because it is not easy to penetrate the fear which envelops their villages. Each car is screened by a hundred eyes and old people and children move off the street if strangers pass.

Unmasked, these self-styled 'heroes of the revolution' are youths in jeans and bulldozer kickers, cruising in cars. They are the village gang, which was armed by the Palestinian revolution, and thought it was licensed to kill by Yasser Arafat himself. Abu Samed says Mr Arafat is no longer behind them as he was. 'We have to pay for our own arms now,' he says, pathetically. A guard at the window peers out at headlights approaching from below. Abu Samed knows the revolution is disowning the Panthers and has handed them to the only man who truly has a licence to kill: Captain Tom.

The Israeli army has patiently learnt how to hunt these men. The usual military patrols are rarely seen on the roads of the Jenin hills. This is where the undercover special forces operate, like the Black Panthers, hiding in the hills, usually helped by a Palestinian collaborator.

Abu Samed believes he only has weeks, if not days, to live, and he is probably right. Captain Tom is thought to be waiting in ambush above the village. 'We are angry with our leadership . . . they decided to stop our military activities, but have allowed the Israelis to continue with theirs. Why should we give up our arms so we just become victims?'

The Panthers insist that for those killed others will join. Amin, aged 17, says he joined only six months ago. Coyly, he recites the aims of the Panthers: to impose order; to protect people against the army and collaborators. But the Arrabeh killing has scared these men as no others have. They know that their friends in Arrabeh had tried to surrender but were shot dead nevertheless.

On the paving of the courtyard floor, where the two died in Arrabeh, bullet holes are driven deep into the ground, evidence that they were shot at from the roofs above as well as from in front.

Witnesses say that after the two were killed Captain Tom walked round to the olive press nearby, where the women were making olive oil late into the night. He said: 'I have just killed Amin and Ahmed. Whoever dares to go down their path, I will kill him.'

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