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Shots shatter the prestige of PLO chairman: Robert Fisk reports from Hebron on threats to the 'seller of our country'

JUST BELOW Hebron's Islamic University, two Israeli soldiers climbed slowly out of the back of their jeep. One of them held a loudhailer, through which he shouted: 'Get going, get going. Go to your houses. It is forbidden to stay on the streets.'

His comrade pointed his Galil assault rifle over the heads of the men and women hurrying to their homes with plastic bags of bread and fruit, then fired three bullets into the air.

The crowd scattered, but Nader watched with interest. He had helped me evade the Israeli curfew by walking with me through the fields outside Hebron. Now he studied these two soldiers with almost academic interest.

''This is something you must realise,' he said. 'Every shot that soldier over there fires, he makes Arafat a smaller man. Each time he shoots, Arafat loses.'

Hebron is a stronghold of Hamas, the Islamic Resistance Movement which will be more than happy if the Arafat-Rabin plan fails. And yesterday was the anniversary of the establishment of the Palestinian movement which the Israelis regard as their principal enemy in the occupied territories.

The problem is that Nader is not a Hamas man. He is - or was - a supporter of Yasser Arafat, a man who speaks with the growing bitterness of someone whose expectations have been eroded, a man who admits he once 'loved' Mr Arafat but who asked me - as four other men did in Hebron, none of them sympathetic to Hamas - how long it would be before Yasser Arafat was assassinated.

'I have given up on Arafat,' Nader said. 'They said the withdrawal would start in ten days but now Rabin says there may be no agreement at the end of these ten days. Why does Arafat allow this?'

And it is indeed true that - to the detriment of Mr Arafat and the PLO - the Israeli Prime Minister has said that 'it would be a mistake to think that an agreement will be signed within the next ten days.' In Hebron, Hamas men talked of renewing the intifada, of their 'triumph' in understanding the nature of Mr Arafat's 'surrender'.

Newly painted graffiti on the walls beside Hebron University threaten the settler who killed a Palestinian civilian last month. Another slogan says 'Our guns are speaking and we will strike down the seller of our country.' The 'seller' is Mr Arafat.

Ibrahim, collecting a plastic bag of flat Arab loaves from the bakery on the main street into Hebron, declared himself a supporter of Hamas. 'We thank Rabin for refusing to help Arafat,' he said. 'And you see that now the Israeli army wants to talk not to the PLO but to us.'

And remarkably, Ibrahim was correct. For the Israeli army itself has admitted opening a 'dialogue' with Hamas in which Hamas officials have spoken to Brigadier-General Doron Almog, the Israeli commander of the Gaza Strip.

General Almog has talked of how Hamas preferred 'the continuation of the Israeli occupation over Arafat's control under autonomy.' But even Hamas itself is mystified as to why the Israelis would do so much to undermine the PLO leader.