PLO deal to move bomb factories out of Gaza

Patrick Cockburn in Gaza City says Hamas will transfer to West Bank

"I was surprised when my interrogator told me that `if you want to make bombs, make them on the West Bank and not in Gaza'," said Ali, a member of the Islamic movement Hamas, who was briefly imprisoned last week by Yasser Arafat's Palestinian Authority.

No one else is putting it quite so baldly, but the PLO chairman is on the verge of agreeing to stop arresting Islamic militants in Gaza in return for their promising to switch military operations to the West Bank.

Ali, bearded and in his 30s, said: "Personally, I don't approve of military operations inside the autonomous areas [of Gaza and Jericho] because they cause confrontations between us and Arafat. But I am in favour of operations inside Israel so long as they are carried out by people who are not from the autonomous area."

In the 10 days since two suicide bombers from Hamas and Islamic Jihad killed seven Israeli soldiers and an American just south of Gaza City, the confrontation between them and the Palestinian Authority has had the ingredients of civil war. Army and police raided nearly a thousand homes and arrested 300 suspects. Sheikh Sayed Abu Musameh, a senior Hamas leader engaged in talks with the Palestinian Authority, said Mr Arafat "is inflicting a collective punishment on the Islamic movement".

But the clampdown was suspended sooner than Israel and the US wanted. Not that it was ever likely that the arrests - mostly of political sympathisers and not military activists - would stop the suicide bombers. "It just won't work," says Raji Sourani, one of Gaza's leading lawyers and human rights activists. "We had the Israelis here for 27 years with their military courts and 6,000 Palestinians in prison, but they still couldn't control security. For real security you need a real peace."

Mr Sourani, who was arrested by Mr Arafat's police in February when he opposed the use of military courts, said the mood of Gaza Palestinians has changed as they have lost hope in the Oslo agreement. "I remember 20 May 1994 when the Islamic Jihad carried out an operation and killed two soldiers. Everybody in Gaza was extremely angry. At that time, the PLO, Israel and the US were all saying give peace a chance."

Almost everybody in Gaza outside the Palestinian Authority makes the same point. The enclave is, in effect, besieged. Every day Israeli soldiers put up more barbed wire to make it more difficult to get out. Few of the 75,000 Gazan workers can go to their jobs.

The real difficulty facing Mr Arafat in disarming Hamas and Islamic Jihad is not lack of force - he has 17,500 police and soldiers - but lack of popular support. Abdullah Hourani, a PLO executive committee member who has mediated between Hamas and the Palestinian Authority, said: "Ask ordinary people in the streets and you will find them happy and glad about the bombings last week." Mr Hourani broke with Mr Arafat over the Oslo agreement in 1993 and believes Israel will leave the West Bank only under military pressure - a polite phrase for suicide bombings.

Mass arrests and summary sentences by the military court in Gaza over the past week have served to underline that the enclave is increasingly run in the tradition of authoritarian Arab regimes in Syria and Egypt. Mr Sourani says when he got a court order for the release of a client, the central prison governor refused to let him go. When Mr Sourani was detained in February the officers holding him said there were no charges and did not question him. The next day the general prosecutor simply explained: "The chairman [Arafat] is extremely angry."

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