Suicide bombers leave no winners

Islamic militants are harming and helping the PLO, writes Patrick Cockburn in Jerusalem
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Since suicide bombers killed seven Israeli soldiers and an American last Sunday, Palestinians have debated if they are on the brink of a civil war in Gaza.

There is no doubt that the 17,500-strong force loyal to Yasser Arafat's Palestinian Authority is doing more than ever to pursue militants of Hamas and Islamic Jihad. They have arrested 300 people, given two members of Islamic Jihad long prison sentences and announced that illegal firearms must be handed in within a month.

Much of this is designed to impress Israeli television viewers.

Not one of the arrested Hamas supporters belonged to its military wing, the Izzedin al Qassem brigades. And in the 24 hours after it was announced that guns were to be given up, not one firearm was surrendered.

But if the likelihood of civil war is overstated, there is a real debate among Palestinians about their options. At one meeting in Gaza, Nabil Shaath, the Planning Minister, until recently Mr Arafat's chief negotiator, said: "It is impossible to make peace and war at the same time. The armed struggle must be frozen, and the [Oslo] agreement must be put to the test."

Mahmoud al-Zihar, a Hamas leader, disagreed: "All peoples who won liberation through peace agreements conducted a parallel war. This was the case in both Algeria and Vietnam. Without war, there will only be agreement about [Palestinian] concessions." Mr Shaath said bombings gave Israel an excuse not to implement Oslo. Mr Zihar said military action was the only reason for Israel to give up anything.

By the end of the week, as Israel sealed off the occupied territories for Passover, Hamas and Mr Arafat's forces seemed close to a truce. A PLO official said: "If there is to be an agreement between all factions, Hamas would have to agree not to carry out attacks from self-rule areas."

Mr Arafat said that he was unhappy with this agreement. But, officially or unofficially, this is likely to be the result of the confrontation between the Palestinian Authority and militants. Mr Arafat's position is in no real danger,as he has force on his side.

Also, according to an opinion poll in late March, 56 per cent of Palestinians would vote for him, although 20 per cent supported Hamas and Islamic Jihad.

Attacks on the Islamic forces would not deliver what Israel wants: an end to the suicide bombing. The Israeli Prime Minister, Yitzhak Rabin, told the Knesset that, for a long time, the Israeli army "has not succeeded in locating a terrorist cell in Hebron, although we're sitting in Hebron and controlling it."

For the Palestinians, suicide bombing is a powerful but double-edged weapon. By demanding that Mr Arafat prevent attacks, Israel is forced to concede him the security apparatus of an independent state. Regardless of an Israeli withdrawal, his grip on the West Bank is growing stronger each day. Israeli undercover squads, active last year in Gaza, are very restrained, and former collaborators with Israel are being hunted down.

The price of the bombing is that many Israelis want peace talks with the PLO ended. Benjamin Netanyahu, the Likud leader, who opposes the Oslo accord, is tipped to win next year's general election.

But in the Knesset, when Mr Netanyahu said he would unleash the Israeli army against the bombers and even send them into Gaza, the Foreign Minister, Shimon Peres, mocked him.

He pictured soldiers going door to door, saying: "Hello, we're from the Likud. Is `the Engineer' [Yehya Ayyash, chief bomb-maker of Islamic Jihad] at your place?"