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Arab Uprising Shows No Sign Of Diminishing

By Lee Hockstader Washington Post Foreign Service Monday , October 30, 2000 ; Page A24

JERUSALEM, Oct. 29 BB Just after sunset every night, 15 or 20 Palestinian men, each representing a different political faction or movement, take seats at a table in Gaza City. No outsiders are welcome. The men are served a demitasse of bitter coffee. Sometimes they tell a few jokes.

Then, for an hour or two, they plan the next day's demonstrations, rallies, marches and violence.

As the Palestinians' uprising enters its second month--today's clashes left at least five more Palestinians dead and scores wounded--the campaign has generated its own regular war council, thousands of willing participants and a full head of steam.

Not only is there no sign of an easing in the clashes and firefights, but Israeli army officers and Palestinian street activists alike predict that matters are likely to get worse--possibly much worse.

"Until now we haven't moved to the military option," said Ahmed Helles, leader in Gaza of Fatah, Yasser Arafat's political machine, and the unofficial first among equals of the nightly war council there. "When we do, the victims won't be only Palestinians. What you've seen so far is nothing."

Israeli army officials take such threats seriously. They are issuing dire warnings of imminent terror attacks, including the possibility of suicide bombings inside Israel.

Helles would not specify what shape an intensification of the uprising might take. But he stressed that only a small fraction of Palestinians with guns have used them so far and that he does not rule out attacks on Israeli civilian targets such as buses.

"When we decide to defend ourselves, everything will be permitted," he said. "The Israelis are pushing us to this point."

Coming from Arafat's inner circle of Fatah loyalists, such an open threat of terror attacks is significant. For the last two years, Arafat's Palestinian Authority has cooperated with Israeli security forces and the CIA to drive terrorists in the West Bank and Gaza underground. Even a month ago it would have been almost unheard of for a top-ranking official of Fatah, which endorsed peace efforts, to threaten bus bombings. Now all that has changed.

On both the Palestinian and Israeli sides, 31 straight days of violence have polarized public opinion and dimmed hopes for a resumption of serious peace talks.

Among Palestinians, it has become virtually impossible to speak of picking up where negotiators left off in the U.S.-brokered negotiations at Camp David in July. After 140 deaths, the vast majority of them Palestinians, a return to the previous status quo is regarded as unacceptable.

Israeli army officers say they will prepare for protracted fighting by calling up reservists to replace active-duty soldiers who have served on the front lines for the last month without a break.

And mindful that Israel is under sharp attack worldwide for using excessive force to put down rioting Palestinians, the army says it is considering crowd control tactics less lethal than rubber-coated bullets and live ammunition.

In a radio interview, Maj. Gen. Yitzhak Ben-Yisrael said soldiers might spray sticky or slippery materials that cause rioters to fall or be immobilized or foul-smelling substances that cling for days. "There is a universal need to achieve military goals without harming innocent populations," he said.

The polarization has sharpened the problems of Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak. The Knesset, Israel's parliament, returns Monday, after a three-month break, in a dark mood. Barak controls barely 30 seats in the 120-member Knesset, which means he has no majority to pass any part of his program.

At virtually any moment his government could be toppled by a no-confidence vote, although the powerful religious party, Shas, says its 17 lawmakers will spare Barak that fate as long as the country faces a national emergency--as Shas defines it, not Barak.

Were Barak to fall, he would stand little chance of reelection, at least if the opinion polls are to be believed. Most surveys show him trailing the man he defeated last year, former prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu, by as much as 18 percent. And he even seems to trail the right-wing leader of the opposition Likud Party, Ariel Sharon.

Barak's one saving grace--and it is a modest one--is that Sharon has reason to fear a challenge from Netanyahu for the Likud Party leadership as much as Barak does in a general election.

Barak has opened talks with Sharon to form a national emergency government. But Sharon is asking a steep price--a host of top cabinet jobs for Likud and other hard-line lawmakers, and for himself the position of deputy prime minister and a veto over all key diplomatic and security policies.

Barak has balked at granting such clout to Sharon, who for Palestinians is perhaps the most provocative of Israel's political leaders. It was Sharon's visit to a Jerusalem site sacred to Muslims and Jews that ignited the violence last month.

Arabs would regard Sharon's inclusion in the government as a sign that Barak has abandoned peace efforts, a move the Israeli leader is loath to make because he remains publicly committed to reviving negotiations.

B) 2000 The Washington Post

-- Martin Thompson (, October 30, 2000

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