Palestinians teeter on brink of civil war

Los Angeles Times

GAZA CITY, West Bank – Yasser Arafat moved closer to warfare with the radical Hamas Islamic movement Thursday, continuing a roundup of militants despite resistance as he struggled to stave off a renewed Israeli assault on his regime.

Tension was high in the neighborhood where Hamas supporters and Palestinian police clashed after the Palestinian Authority placed Hamas’ founder, Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, under house arrest.

One of three demonstrators wounded in the confrontation died of his injuries Thursday. Police said he was shot by Hamas gunmen who battled them outside Yassin’s home. Hamas said he was shot by police.

Clashes flared again late Thursday, with police in riot gear charging stone-throwing youths. No injuries were reported.

Hamas waited to see how far Arafat would go now that Israel and the Bush administration had driven home the point that the militant Islamic organization threatens his survival as much as Israel does. Islamic militants are counting on support from Palestinians who admire their rejection of negotiations with Israel, their willingness to die for their cause and their social welfare work.

Supporters of Hamas and of Arafat’s Fatah movement insisted they would not let the confrontation degenerate into civil war. But both sides say Israel’s demand that Arafat dismantle the organization and lock up its hardcore activists has created a situation fraught with danger for the Palestinians. Arafat may have no choice but to take them on.

Israel launched a military assault on the underpinnings of Arafat’s regime Tuesday after a series of suicide bombings in Jerusalem and Haifa over the weekend, claimed by Hamas, killed more than two dozen people and wounded scores. But it suspended air raids after Arafat phoned Foreign Minister Shimon Peres on Wednesday, asking for more time to make arrests.

In a statement issued Thursday, Hamas said it rejected Yassin’s house arrest and called on Arafat to “rescind this dangerous decision.”

The pressure continued to mount, with U.S. envoy Anthony Zinni pressing home the message to Arafat that he must act decisively to avoid more Israeli attacks.

A senior Palestinian intelligence official in the West Bank said Arafat is determined to quell any signs of a Hamas revolt and to continue arrests. But he didn’t say how the security forces could pull off the crackdown.

“We are attempting to restore law and order in Gaza right now,” he said.

Palestinian security officials said arrests continued overnight Wednesday and Thursday, and that more than 180 people had been detained, 70 of them in Ramallah alone.

Israeli security sources said, however, that only a half-dozen of what Israel considers to be the most dangerous militants had been arrested.

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