Palestinian prisoners' strike fuels violence

FEARS grew yesterday of escalating violence throughout the Israeli-occupied territories after several days of sporadic street rioting and the deaths in the Gaza Strip yesterday of a Palestinian and an Israeli settler.

The violence has been fuelled by a hunger strike among nearly 5,000 Palestinian prisoners, protesting at their conditions, and has led to warnings of a new intifada.

Last night, after a sudden visit to the Gaza Strip by the Israeli Prime Minister, Yitzhak Rabin, Israeli radio reported that the hunger strike, about to enter its third week, had been suspended for a week while an inquiry was carried out into the prisoners' complaints. However, tension throughout the occupied territories remained high. Yesterday most of Gaza was under curfew after sympathy protests in the refugee camps. Troops shot dead a boy of 14 during the protests, Palestinian sources said.

The hunger strike is dividing the Palestinian leadership, however. Some members of the peace delegation fear it could lead to a hardening of the Israeli position, with the government refusing to be seen to give in to protests. Others believe the strike could aid the Palestinian position, revealing the depth of dissatisfaction with the Israeli autonomy offer and forcing the government to make more concessions to defuse the tension.

The strike has boosted fears in the occupied territories that without swift progress in the peace talks, Palestinians may withdraw support for their own delegation, resorting to violent protest instead. Indicating the seriousness with which the process is seen by the Israeli government, Mr Rabin yesterday visited the Gaza Strip. He said that the army had orders to do everything within the law to prevent the disturbances 'whether by curfew, closures or military activity'.

Mr Rabin, who is already under pressure from his right wing to take a tough line, cast blame for the uprising on the Palestinian leadership. He implied they had delayed progress in the peace talks by refusing to accept compromises. He also blamed the unrest on the 'rejectionist' Palestinians - led by the Islamic military group, Hamas, who believe the talks are a waste of time.

Israeli authorities fear that if prisoners begin to collapse or die the tension on the streets could erupt in mass violence. Although Palestinian leaders are loath to talk about revival of a full-blown intifada - which in the past year has dwindled to sporadic guerrilla violence - there is evidence that the prisoners' strike has produced broad popular backing. Parallels are being drawn with the 1987 eruption of protest in Gaza after weeks of growing tension.

Almost every family in the West Bank and Gaza has someone inside an Israeli jail. On Saturday Israeli troops shot dead one Palestinian and wounded 62 in clashes that spread from Gaza to Jerusalem and the West Bank. At least 90 Palestinians were shot and wounded in the Gaza Strip on Wednesday. In recent days prisoners' families have started their own protests outside Red Cross offices in several towns, and strikes have taken place in schools and universities. Traders in some West Bank towns yesterday agreed to close their stores earlier than usual in solidarity.

The prisoners - most of whom have been jailed for offences relating to the intifada and see themselves as political prisoners - have nevertheless presented their protest as non-political. They want negotiations about their conditions and, in particular, about the holding of 105 prisoners in underground isolation cells, some in chains. There have been widespread allegations of torture in Israeli jails.

At the beginning of the last round of peace talks in August the government released 800 political prisoners. However, the move was seen as an empty gesture by most Palestinians who point out that those released were either locked up for very minor offences or were due for imminent release.