Palestinians arrest 35 Hamas activists

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PALESTINIAN security forces yesterday rounded up 40 activists of the Islamic Resistance Movement, Hamas, in a move which will be seen as confirming Hamas suspicions of collusion between Yasser Arafat's PLO and the Israeli authorities.

Dealing with Hamas activists was always going to be a delicate task for Mr Arafat. If he did not take a strong line, he would be accused by the Israelis of not doing enough to preserve security as agreed in the PLO-Israel accords. If he cracked down on Hamas, they would charge him with acting as Israel's cat's paw, and denying freedom of expression to Palestinians opposed to his peace with Israel.

The Israeli Prime Minister, Yitzhak Rabin, had made it seem Mr Arafat was taking orders from Israel by warning that the peace process was in doubt unless the Palestinian authorities acted to track down the Hamas gunmen who killed an Israeli in an ambush on Sunday. 'It is inconceivable we will continue the process without seeing on the part of the Palestinian Authority a serious effort to deal with those terrorist elements who are known for claiming res ponsibility for terror,' he said.

He always uses the word 'terrorist' for those who kill Israelis, or try to. The Hamas view is that the Israeli presence in Gaza is illegal, and that even though Israel has withdrawn from most of the strip, the only way to ensure that it pulls out completely is not by waiting for negotiations but to harry them at every opportunity. Shortly after Mr Rabin made his statement, Palestinian police acted. Subsequently, Mr Rabin described the round-up as 'a good sign'.

Nabil Shaath, the PLO's chief negotiator in talks with Israel, pledged that Palestinian police would find the Hamas men who killed 18-year-old Ron Soval. Soval was the first Israeli civilian killed in Gaza since most of the Strip was turned over to Palestinians in May. 'We are taking this very seriously. Our cabinet met all last night to take up measures that will take the perpetrators to justice and will prevent and pre-empt operations like this from happening in the future,' Mr Shaath told reporters.

The chief Hamas spokesman Dr Mahmoud al-Zahhar said he had received a phone call from Mr Arafat on Sunday asking him to end Hamas military operations. 'It was a negative step - whether it was aimed at appeasing Israel or otherwise,' Dr Zahhar said of the round-up. 'How can we co-operate with the Palestinian Authority in light of these developments?'

Mohsen Abu Eitah, one of the men taken into custody and then released, said he was forced to sign a document denying his links to the group and stating he would respect the laws of the Palestinian Authority.

Palestinian leaders also announced they were launching a campaign to confiscate unlicensed weapons in Gaza and the other autonomous enclave, Jericho in the West Bank.