Leading Article: Middle Eastern pointers for Ulster

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WITH hopes of an end to violence in Northern Ireland still in the air, progress in implementing the peace deal between Israel and the PLO has assumed added interest. The historic handshake in Washington between Yasser Arafat and Yitzhak Rabin took place on 13 September. For a time, with bilateral negotiations on outstanding problems making progress in Egypt, all seemed to be on course for Palestinian autonomy in Gaza and around Jericho to come into effect as scheduled on 13 December.

This week has, however, seen what looks like a reversion to the bad old days of the intifada and harsh retribution by Israel's security forces, with a murderous Palestinian assault on Israeli settlers on the West Bank thrown in. Not surprisingly, there are fears that the deal signed in September may be in jeopardy. Since peace will always be vulnerable to subversion by those who see it as a threat, little imagination is required to foresee a settlement between the various parties involved in Northern Ireland coming under similar pressures.

In such a complex situation, apportioning blame is not just difficult but largely pointless. Were the Israelis wise to choose such a juncture to kill Imad Akel, a much- wanted leader of the military wing of Hamas and very much a hero to militant Muslims? Applying their own tough standards of realpolitik, they no doubt believed they were. They may even have reckoned they were doing a favour to the PLO, which has much to fear from Palestinian organisations that reject its peace deal with Israel.

Whatever the logic, the killing helped to trigger riots and stone- throwing in Gaza, which in turn led to Israeli forces opening fire with live and plastic bullets, wounding an estimated 50 Palestinians, one of whom later died. Tension was further exacerbated when the Israelis - seemingly by mistake - shot dead a gunman from Fatah, a mainstream PLO faction, after he had handed in his weapons and been released, and arrested three Fatah Hawks. On top of all that came the murder by militant Palestinians of a young female Israeli settler, with three others wounded.

More positively, there have been conciliatory remarks from Mr Rabin, and an unprecedented meeting between Israeli generals and PLO leaders from Gaza, aimed at halting the violence. The likelihood is that both sides will learn from the events of the past few days - but that the rejectionists will continue their attempts to sabotage a peaceful handover. It was always going to be difficult, and the main players on both sides have nothing to gain and much to lose from failure.