Scores wounded in Gaza protests: Israeli and Palestinian leaders seek to end the violence amid anxiety about the peace process

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The Independent Online
VIOLENT clashes erupted across the Israeli-occupied Gaza Strip yesterday amid mounting confusion about the state of the peace process, and strong doubt that the much- hailed Israeli withdrawal, targeted for 13 December, will take place on time.

Israeli soldiers yesterday shot and wounded up to 50 Palestinians during widespread protests. On the streets where they had been waving flags of celebration only two months ago, after the signing of the peace accords, Palestinians yesterday burnt tyres, and stoned Israeli patrols.

Leaders on both sides, fearing that the violence could undermine support for the deal, tried to calm the situation. Yitzhak Rabin, the Israeli Prime Minister, appeared to offer some small concessions, and made conciliatory remarks 'regretting the escalation of violence'. Yasser Arafat, chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO), said negotiators should press on with talks to meet the 13 December deadline.

However, the spreading gloom is unlikely to be eased without swift and radical signs of progress towards the withdrawal. Behind the protest lies anger at the lack of improvement in life on the ground. Israel has refused to release more than a handful of political prisoners. In the past month, arrests of Palestinians suspected of involvement in anti-Israeli activity, which fell just after the signing of the accords, has suddenly risen again, reaching about 1,000 last month.

The most aggravating factor in the current violence, however, is the killing by Israeli soldiers of 'wanted' Palestinian gunmen in recent days. The killing of Imad Akel, a leader of the military wing of Hamas, the Islamic Resistance Movement, and a hero to many Gaza youths, caused much anger. It appears to have served to unite extremists who reject the peace process with some moderates, who had, until then, given the deal cautious support. After the killing Hamas and Fatah, the mainstream PLO faction, called a three-day strike of mourning, which was solidly enforced yesterday.

Then on Sunday Israeli soldiers killed Ahmed Abu Reesh, a Fatah gunman who, only hours earlier, had handed in his weapons and accepted an Israeli 'amnesty'. As a result Fatah Hawks, the armed wing of Fatah, ended its 'truce' with Israeli soldiers, vowing to take up arms again.

On Monday night, an undercover Israeli army unit captured three Fatah Hawks, including a leader, Taisir Bardini, in a shoot-out in the Rafah refugee camp, in which three Palestinians and three Israeli soldiers were wounded.

At the negotiating table there are several areas of disagreement. There is no agreement on how far Israeli troops should pull back from centres of Palestinian population in the Gaza Strip, or from the residential areas of Jericho; nor on how Israel should protect Jewish settlements; nor on who should control border crossings. In addition it remains unclear under what legal authority the new 'autonomous' region will operate and what laws will govern the Palestinian police. There is no agreement on when Palestinian prisoners will be released.

GAZA CITY - The Israeli army agreed yesterday to halt its pursuit of PLO militants and take other measures to defuse violence in the occupied Gaza Strip, Israeli and Palestinian sources said, Reuter reports. Senior Israeli army commanders and Palestinian leaders from Gaza decided to work for calm at a meeting, the sources said.

(Photograph omitted)