Peace - or return to intifadah?

Arafat and Barak, along with Egyptian, UN, and US leaders, meet Monday to halt conflict.

Despite the rhetoric and popular images, Israeli troops aren't just facing stone chuckers and slingshot sharpshooters.

A visit to Ramallah, the West Bank headquarters for Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's security forces, reveals a city bristling with a variety of armed men.

Wearing olive-drab camouflage fatigues, cradling M-16 rifles, they patrol the streets in the back of pickup trucks. In black uniforms and berets, machine guns on their knees, they guard Palestinian government offices. In jeans and T-shirts, brandishing AK-47s, they have been alongside the Palestinian youths, firing bullets among the stones.

As Mr. Arafat meets Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and President Clinton today in Egypt in a last-ditch summit to save the Mideast peace process, Palestinians - both from the security forces and radical Islamist groups - are threatening a return to the armed struggle of the 1980s, which they credit with forcing Israelis to the negotiating table.

If the talks fail, Palestinians frustrated by the failure of seven years of peace negotiations will use "all the available options, whatever we can" warns Maj. Gen. Khaled Tantesh, head of the Palestinian police in the West Bank.

"It is now very difficult to control the situation and continue to stop any military attacks by Palestinians on the Israelis," adds Marwan Barghouti, West Bank chief of Arafat's Fatah faction and leader of its militia. "For seven years Palestinians were persuaded the armed struggle was against their interests ... we ask our people to be patient, but it doesn't work."

Few in Ramallah think there is any future in direct military confrontation with the Israeli Army, the best trained and equipped in the Middle East. Only five members of Israeli security forces have been killed , three in shooting battles, over the past two weeks, while nearly 100 Palestinians and Israeli-Arabs have died.

"What can we do? Nothing," says Mr. Barghouti. "The Israelis have helicopters, rockets, tanks. It would take them 10 minutes to get into the center of Ramallah" from their positions on the outskirts, if they wanted to.

Palestinian forces are poorly equipped - barely half of them even have guns say officials here, and few of them carry more than a simple rifle.

But it is hard to keep track of who has guns and who doesn't. More than a dozen different armed security forces have sprung up in Palestinian controlled areas of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, with often overlapping responsibilities. They range from what the Palestinians call their army, through the police to the plainclothed preventive security forces, intelligence-gathering secret police, elite military units loyal to different Palestinian political groups, and militia groups, such as Barghouti's men, known as tanzim, Arabic for "the organization."

Together, they probably account for more than 40,000 men, according to Israeli estimates, though Palestinian officials refuse to say more than that the ordinary police number is 16,000, only 10 percent of whom are armed, they claim.

This clearly exceeds the numbers of 30,000 men allowed under the Israeli-Palestinian peace accords signed in 1995, which permits the Palestinians to create only "a strong police force." Israeli officials also complain that the Palestinian Authority has not kept its pledge to collect illegal weapons, held by individuals. Israeli Army officials estimate Palestinians hold 40 percent more than the 15,000 light personal weapons, such as pistols and rifles permitted under the accord.

Moreover, Israelis say, weapons under the agreement must be kept in the hands of regular security forces. Weapons in militia hands, like tanzim, are thus illegal.

The greatest threat to Israel's security, however, should the peace process come to a halt, would probably not come from the publicly armed men who display, and use, their weapons on the streets of Ramallah and other Palestinian towns.

Rather, say Israeli and Palestinian security officials alike, suicide bombers from the radical Islamic movements Hamas and Islamic Jihad, who killed scores of Israelis in explosions in 1995 and 1996, pose the real danger.

Over the past three years, Palestinian security forces have cooperated with the Israelis to keep Hamas in check, jailing many of its leaders and bombmakers. Last week, however, they released a number of Islamic political prisoners from Gaza jails, as Arafat sought to broaden his popular support during the current crisis.

"There was cooperation ... but the Israelis wanted us to cooperate to serve only their interests," complains General Tantesh. "Barak wants to use us as a tool to protect his security; that won't happen."

"After all these casualties," adds Barghouti in what sounds like a veiled threat, "I doubt the police will control the situation. It is a very appropriate time for Hamas to start their attacks."

At the same time, he says, Palestinians have seen how Hizbullah (Islamic Party of God) guerrillas in southern Lebanon, constantly harrying and ambushing Israeli occupying soldiers over the past 15 years, forced them to pull out earlier this year.

"In principle, our strategy is not to use guns, to keep the intifadah [1980s uprising against Israeli occupation] peaceful," insists Barghouti. "But sometimes not everything is under control. Under pressure, under fire, the Israelis withdrew from Lebanon ... you cannot ignore that experience, and the young people are under the influence of the Lebanon model."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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