The frail ceasefire between Israel and the Palestinians was under fresh strain yesterday as Israeli settlers rampaged through two Arab villages after a six-month-old Jewish baby was badly injured by Palestinian stone-throwers.
The outbreak of sectarian skirmishing came as the two sides were preparing for the arrival today in the region of the CIA director George Tenet, dispatched by US President George Bush to be the vanguard of a major American and European drive to consolidate the precarious truce.
The CIA chief - who appears to be playing the role of American diplomat rather than spook - will be pressing both sides to push ahead with the recommendations in the Mitchell report, which the international community is promoting as the only path back to negotiations and away from war.
He will arrive to find that Israel's government is expressing support for the Mitchell recommendations, although it is still pressing for a fudge over the report's call for a complete freeze of all settlement construction activity. "Mitchell is the only option," said a senior Israeli official, "It has the potential to get us back to the political process." He described the current situation as "very serious and very fragile".
Israel's position is - at least publicly - that it will follow the Mitchell "road map" if Mr Arafat satisfies it that he is making a genuine and effective effort to stop attacks on its soldiers and citizens. Chief on its agenda is a demand that the Palestinian leader imprisons suspected Islamic-nationalist militants. In return, Israeli officials are talking about what they see as a "de facto", if not all-out, settlement freeze - building only within built-up areas on existing settlements.
But the CIA director will also find that many Palestinians are ambivalent about the ceasefire, which comes in tandem which another bout of harsh collective punishment from Israel in the aftermath of Friday's Tel Aviv suicide bombing, in which 21 people were killed. Israel refrained, under international pressure, from harsh military reprisals after that atrocity, which is believed to be the work of Hamas.
But its army sealed off the occupied territories more tightly than ever - easing the plight of 3m people by slightly loosening the blockade only yesterday. The Israeli armed forces have also been digging a trench along the southern Gaza border, on the grounds that this will stop the Palestinians smuggling in weapons via tunnels from Egypt.
Nor has Mr Tenet's task been made any easier by the scattered violence from both sides, or by an outburst by Ariel Sharon, Israel's prime minister, who told a Russian TV interviewer that he viewed Yasser Arafat as a "murderer and a pathological liar" - an onslaught that drew a sharp call for self-restraint from his more moderate Foreign Minister, Shimon Peres.
Yesterday, only hours before a big settler demonstration was due to begin in west Jerusalem to demand that Mr Sharon take tougher military measures against the Palestinians, a group of armed settlers set light to several buildings in the West Bank villages of al-Sawia and al-Lubban, according to witnesses and local officials.
Diplomatic efforts will now be directed at moving both sides to fulfilling other terms in the Mitchell report - such as resuming security co-operation, arrests by the Palestinian Authority of Islamic militants, and an end by Israel of blockades on the occupied territories. None of this is easy.
Israel is demanding that Mr Arafat's security forces round up 300 Palestinian militants, and has provided a list of their names. However, it is thought highly unlikely the Palestinian leader will attempt such a large, and politically precarious, round-up.
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