AS Israeli and Palestinian officials tried to keep the flame of their peace talks alive this week, negotiating in Tunis and Cairo, the mood on the ground in the occupied territories grew darker.
``People begin to think that with the peace talks or without the peace talks we are getting killed,'' said Iyyad Barghouti, a political science lecturer at An Najah University in Nablus, in the West Bank. ``The number of those who are against this way of negotiating is increasing.''
Mr. Barghouti was speaking after at least three suspected Islamic guerrillas were killed, according to the Israeli Army, in a two-day siege of a Hebron building, which ended on Wednesday.
Yesterday, the Army clamped a curfew on the city of Nablus to stifle clashes that broke out as youths protested against the sledgehammer siege. More than 100 soldiers used antitank rockets and thousands of rounds of automatic-weapons fire over the course of 22 hours to quell the gunmen, believed to belong to the radical Islamist group Hamas.
One bystander, a pregnant woman, was also killed in the firefight.
In a separate development, Israeli Victor Leshtzever died after being shot by a Palestinian near Jerusalem's old city. A Damascus-based PLO faction claimed responsibility for the attack.
The manner in which the siege in Hebron was conducted drew international protests, particularly since Israeli soldiers used the roof of a children's hospital as a firebase for shooting at the target building.
The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) condemned that action as ``a violation of one of the most basic principles of international humanitarian law.''
In Hebron itself, the siege and deaths further inflamed anti-Israeli passions that have been smoldering under a 24-hour curfew for the month since Jewish settler Baruch Goldstein killed at least 30 Palestinians in a Hebron mosque.
Leaders want to suspend talks
No sooner had the siege begun than Hebron's civic leaders, grouped in a committee that supports the peace process, telephoned Palestine Liberation Organization headquarters in Tunis to demand that it suspend current talks with Israel.
But Israeli officials met their PLO counterparts Wednesday and yesterday, seeking a formula to coax the PLO back to talks on Palestinian self-rule in the Gaza Strip and West Bank town of Jericho, which broke off after the mosque massacre.
During the siege, Hebron residents who watched the battle from their roofs and muezzins chanting from their mosque loudspeakers, joined in shouts of Allahu Akbar, God is Great, the Muslim rallying call that Hamas has adopted as its war-cry in its violent campaign against the peace process.
``There is no doubt that Hamas is getting more support'' among Palestinians throughout the occupied territories, said Barghouti, an expert on Islamic radicals. ``What we see in Israel's actions is that the peace process hasn't given us anything.
``We used to say that the lack of positive changes in peoples' lives was adding to the opposition,'' concurred Ghassan al-Khatib, a former member of the Palestinian peace talks delegation. ``Now we have very dramatic and negative developments that are changing things for the worse.''
The siege was another illustration of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin's oft-repeated policy of ``pursuing the peace process as if there was no terrorism, and pursuing terrorists as if there were no peace process.''
The peace process appeared still to be floundering in Cairo, as Israel and the PLO tussled over the size and authority of an international force to protect the Palestinians in the occupied territories, as called for in a United Nations resolution last week.
Impasse over police force
Unconfirmed reports from Cairo suggested that the Israeli team had finally accepted a Palestinian demand that the foreign observers - to be stationed in Hebron, Jericho, and Gaza - should be lightly armed for self defense. But the Israelis were said to be balking at proposals for a force of more than 2,000 men.
The two sides were also at loggerheads over the nature and scale of a planned Palestinian police force in Hebron, which would patrol the streets jointly with Israeli forces.
The PLO is insisting that any Palestinians in uniform must be under PLO control, not answerable to the Israeli authorities. That way, Palestinian officials explain, their police presence would be a step toward autonomy, rather than simply serving the occupation.
Whatever compromise is eventually reached - and negotiators on both sides were optimistic yesterday that they would succeed - it seemed unlikely to satisfy many ordinary Palestinians in the occupied territories.
A common call here is for the immediate evacuation of Jewish settlers from urban Palestinian areas and the disarming of all settlers, demands that go beyond the PLO stance.
``There is a growing gap between the public's position and the leadership's position,'' Dr. Khattib says. ``This is very harmful for us, and for the whole process, because a leadership without the support of its population will not be able to deliver. And even if it signs an agreement, it will have a hard time implementing it.''