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Palestinians seize on Mrs Clinton's visit to stoke `gas' row with Israel

HILLARY CLINTON'S decision to go to Israel on what is widely regarded on a personal vote-seeking mission has taken a toll on the fragile Middle East peace process her husband has been trying to nurture.

Israelis and Palestinians were last night trading angry words after the wife of Yasser Arafat used Mrs Clinton's visit to launch a verbal attack on Israel. Suha Arafat was making a speech introducing Mrs Clinton at a ceremony in the West Bank town of Ramallah, which was intended to mark the giving of a US grant for a Palestinian health care centre.

With the First Lady at her side, Mrs Arafat claimed Israeli forces had been systematically using gas to poison Palestinian women and children, causing an increase of cancer, and Israel had contaminated 80 per cent of Palestinian water sources with chemicals.

Mrs Clinton, who went to great lengths to avoid causing controversy during her trip to Israel and Palestinian areas, sat expressionless during Mrs Arafat's tirade.

"These comments (of Mrs Arafat's) have, of course, no connection to reality and it would have been better if they had never been said," said a statement from the office of the Israeli Prime Minister, Ehud Barak. "It would be preferable if the Palestinian side would bring its positions to the negotiating table. Poisoning the public atmosphere does not help bring about success in these negotiations."

The outburst is likely to lead to criticism of Mrs Clinton back home for going to the region at a highly sensitive time in what appears to be a mission to win over the New York Jewish vote for her as yet undeclared bid for a senate seat.

It was always a perilous mission. Behind the scenes her aides debated hard over whether she should visit Palestinian-ruled areas or go to the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem's Old City. They also knew she would be criticised by both sides if she failed to do so. The First Lady swept in, surrounded by security men, planted a message in the Wall, and left.

Whether she has achieved her political goal remains to be seen, but there were few obvious signs that she was winning anyone over, at least in the Old City.

"This is merely a campaign appearance to attract the Jewish vote," said James Adelman, a lawyer on holiday from Chicago. "I think the voters will see it as transparent. After all, here's a woman who said she's in favour of a Palestinian state."

The fragile peace talks were buffeted anew this week when Mr Barak made it clear that he does not think UN Resolution 242 - a centrepin of the Olso accord - applies to the West Bank and Gaza.