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PLO names its price for returning to peace talks

THE Palestine Liberation Organisation said at its headquarters in Tunis yesterday that it would not resume negotiations with Israel while Jewish settlers 'hold their guns to Palestinian heads' in the occupied territories. But the PLO also offered hope of an eventual resumption of talks.

'We are not trying to freeze Arab-Israeli peace talks,' the PLO spokesman, Yasser Abed-Rabbo, said after a PLO leadership meeting in Tunis. 'We are looking for their resumption. But we have our own public opinion, which demands a minimum requirement for the security of Palestinians in the occupied territories. We cannot negotiate while the settlers hold their guns to Palestinian heads.'

The Israeli Prime Minister, Yitzhak Rabin, speaking in parliament, yesterday urged the PLO to return to talks, telling Palestinians 'we understand your feelings and hurt along with you over the terrible tragedy'. And Israel's ambassador to the United Nations, Gad Yaacobi, said an international presence in the occupied territories was possible, provided it had the agreement of both Israel and the PLO.

Palestinian leaders continued talks with US officials about the terms for a resumption of talks. At present these include measures to disarm the Jewish settlers - something the Israeli Prime Minister, Yitzhak Rabin, cannot concede. The PLO has dismissed as inadequate the Israeli government's promise to disarm some Jewish settlers. Mr Abed-Rabbo said that the PLO was considering sending a delegation to Washington to pursue these contacts.

The Hebron massacre has set off widespread riots and protests in the Israeli-occupied territories. Israeli soldiers shot dead two Palestinians yesterday and wounded at least 20 others. One of the most worrying developments for the Israelis is the depth of protests by its own Arab minority - those who tend to call themselves Palestinians with Israeli citizenship - who have protested in the Arab towns of Israel proper against the massacre perpetrated against their Palestinian brothers in the Israeli-occupied West Bank. A Bedouin from the southern town of Rahat was the first Israeli Arab killed by Israeli gunfire since 1976.

It has emerged that the president of the Israeli supreme court is to head the judicial inquiry into the shootings. He has also called for the panel to consist of five rather than the usual three justices, thus underlining the gravity of their task.

King Fahd of Saudi Arabia is to give 200,000 riyals (more than pounds 35,000) to the families of every Palestinian killed during and after the Hebron massacre and will fly the seriously wounded to Saudi hospitals.

The massacre has put all sides in a quandary. The PLO chairman, Yasser Arafat, is under increasing pressure both from his organisation outside the occupied territories and from Palestinians on the West Bank and Gaza Strip either to break off the talks or to take a very different approach. Yet he understands better than most the limits of his power. Whatever the rhetoric, he knows there is no alternative to continued negotiations with the Israelis. It is in his interest now to try to extract the maximum concessions from Mr Rabin before returning to the table.

The Arab states - Syria, Jordan and Lebanon - had no option but to suspend talks with the Israelis. Neither a dictatorship such as Syria nor a benign monarchy such as Jordan can ignore public opinion.

But this is not the first time that a seemingly insurmountable obstacle has presented itself. And such obstacles have been overcome. In December 1992, after Israel expelled more than 400 Palestinian Islamist activists to southern Lebanon, all talks were broken off. The Palestinians insisted they would not resume until all were allowed back.

The Syrians demonstrated their lack of commitment to the declared principle of a unified Arab stand when they said their national interests could not be held up and they would be returning to the talks - which they did. It only emerged later that it was in that same December 1992 that the secret PLO-Israel channel had been instituted and talks had continued in Oslo despite the official Palestinian line.

It may be politically unacceptable at present for the Arabs to talk openly with the Israelis. But once tempers have cooled, all sides recognise they have no choice but to pursue the current option. For the Arabs this underlines their own impotence. The danger is that widespread frustration might find expression, as so often, in spontaneous violence and revenge.

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