West Bank gears up for war

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Sunday 30 July 2000 West Bank gears up for war JEWISH settlers and Palestinian extremists were stepping up preparations for war on the West Bank this weekend as President Clinton urged Yasser Arafat to drop his threat to declare a Palestinian state in September. Israeli army units in the occupied territory have been placed on high alert following last week's collapse of the Camp David peace talks. Elite infantry battalions, recently withdrawn from south Lebanon, are already mounting "aggressive" patrols through areas where clashes with Palestinian forces are feared.

The army has ordered Jewish settlers to use "all necessary measures" if they come under attack. The strategic settlement of Kiryat Arba, an ultra-Zionist stronghold, has requested 10 heavy machineguns to bolster its perimeter. Self-defence groups are rehearsing emergency drills and building stockpiles of arms, fuel, food and medical supplies, ready for a siege.

On the Palestinian side of the West Bank's invisible front line, paramilitary police and militia forces are being deployed around potential flashpoints. Retired Egyptian army officers are understood to have been training them for assaults on fortified positions and for holding captured ground under fire.

Anti-tank trenches packed with explosives have been dug along Palestinian-controlled roads to counter any Israeli incursion. Armour-piercing weapons - and possibly SAM-7 anti-aircraft missiles - are believed to have been smuggled to Mr Arafat's forces across the Dead Sea from Jordan and through secret tunnels running beneath Gaza's border with Egypt.

Meanwhile, as the Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak prepares for a parliamentary vote of confidence tomorrow, security chiefs are taking seriously threats that Jewish extremists may try to kill him.

As word leaked out from Camp David that Israel might be willing to surrender more than 90 per cent of the West Bank and parts of Jerusalem, the shadowy Kach organisation - already outlawed for committing violence against Palestinians - gave warning that Mr Barak would be "responsible for his own life" if settlers were evicted from "sacred" land.

Senior officials from both sides are trying to defuse the volatile situation created by Mr Arafat's threat to declare statehood on September 13. The Israeli government has made clear that it would respond with the formal annexation of all the areas of the West Bank it still controls. In such an event, most observers believe that Jewish settlements would become the target of intensive Palestinian guerrilla warfare, provoking a ferocious Israeli response.

Mr Clinton weighed back into the crisis when he told Mr Arafat that a unilateral declaration would constitute "a big mistake", and emphasised that the Palestinian leader could not expect "to walk away from the consequences" if he went ahead.

Palestinian officials were predictably outraged. Hanan Ashrawi, a senior Arafat aide, denounced the American leader's remarks as "political blackmail", accusing him of "biased, cynical pandering" to Israeli interests. Mr Clinton's blunt observations, made in the course of an interview with Israeli television, came as Mr Arafat set off for Paris at the start of a European tour to drum up diplomatic support for his dream of statehood.

Palestinian fury was compounded by Mr Clinton's announcement that he favoured transferring the United States embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem and would make a decision on this by the end of the year. Like most Western nations, the US has hitherto resisted pressure to make the shift to the ancient city, claimed by Israelis and Palestinians as their capital.

Although Mr Arafat previously indicated he might postpone his September 13 deadline, Mr Clinton's intervention appeared likely to exacerbate the intense pressure on him from the Palestinian public. At the choreographed celebrations that greeted his return to Gaza from Camp David, supporters of the fundamentalist Muslim movement Hamas chanted: "Yes to a new intifada [uprising]!" They offered to be martyrs.

The mood among the estimated 180,000 Jewish settlers scattered across the region is equally unyielding. The mayor of Beit El, Uri Ariel, is urging the army to react "swiftly and harshly" in the event of Palestinian attacks.

A reserve army colonel who advises on West Bank security said: "We must be prepared for some kind of onslaught to coincide with Arafat's declaration." Col Moshe Hager-Lau confirmed rumours that the army had staged training exercises for the "reconquest" of Arab centres such as Ramallah and Jericho if widespread fighting broke out.


-- Martin Thompson (mthom1927@aol.com), July 29, 2000


There's nothing more predictable than war in the Middle East, unless it's war in Northern Ireland.

-- Uncle Fred (dogboy45@bigfoot.com), July 29, 2000.

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