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Monday, 22 October, 2001, 22:53 GMT 23:53 UK
Watching the Palestinian night
Palestinian gunmen in Bethlehem
Fatah has threatened a "rain of bullets" on Gilo
Barbara Plett

It was a cold dark night: the group of middle-aged men sitting in plastic chairs on the street kerb huddled into their coats for warmth.

What on earth are they doing, I wondered, stopping the car and rolling down the window.


These men had sat up until one o'clock in the morning for several weeks to discourage any adventurers challenging the truce

It was the beginning of October, we were checking out the ceasefire in Bethlehem and its sister villages, Beit Jala and Beit Sahour.

The order to stop shooting had come several weeks earlier from the Palestinian leader, Yasser Arafat, fearful of getting on the wrong side of the new US-led coalition against terrorism.

Bethlehem and its area were one of the crucial intifada battle fronts.

From here, Palestinian gunmen had regularly opened fire on Gilo, a community at the edge of Jerusalem built on occupied land.

Peace line

It was quiet now, and the men on the street kerb were a sort of neighbourhood watch, as it turned out.

They were fed up with the militants who shot from among their houses, and brought return Israeli tank fire while their families huddled on the floor.

Yasser Arafat
Mr Arafat's personal authority can still win obedience

Backed now by Mr Arafat's orders, these men had sat up until one o'clock in the morning for several weeks to discourage any adventurers challenging the truce.

Together with Palestinian security forces, the civilians held the line.

Absolutely essential was co-operation from Atef Abayat, the Fatah military commander in Bethlehem.

Fatah is a faction headed by Yasser Arafat. It is not so much an organised party as a loose political movement attached to clans, families and refugee camps.

These local allegiances have tended to become stronger than loyalty to the larger group during the year-long uprising.

But Mr Arafat's personal authority can still win obedience.

Peace shattered

Such was the fragile calm that finally exploded several days ago.

It was actually a new white jeep belonging to Atef Abayat that blew up.

Palestinians mourn over the body of Atef Abayat
The death of Abayat marked the end of a calm period

Palestinian sources say the militia leader got the vehicle as a gift from a car dealer.

Apparently the seats were stuffed with explosives. Whatever triggered them also triggered the central locking system, trapping Abayat and two companions inside.

Privately Israeli security forces admitted they were responsible, although no-one has said so publicly.

This was too much for local Fatah militants, most of them part of the powerful Abayat clan.

They turned their guns on Gilo again and, shortly afterward, Israeli tanks moved into Bethlehem.

Of course, this is only a small part of the big picture.

Revenge

The Israelis are responding to the recent assassination of their tourism minister by reoccupying parts of Palestinian towns and targeting militants on their wanted list.


Although that war has actually fragmented Palestinian society, Mr Arafat still appears to be the only one who can hold the pieces together

They say the plan is to stay only as long as it takes to dismantle what they call terrorist organisations, since Yasser Arafat refuses to do so.

Newspaper commentators have concluded that the plan is to destroy the Palestinian Authority and expel Yasser Arafat from the territories.

There is no question that the Palestinian leader has completely lost the trust of every sector of Israeli society over the past year after at least four failed ceasefires.

The intifada, though, is not Mr Arafat's personal project.

There is much to suggest that he faces the collective will of his people, who see it as their war of independence.

Although that war has actually fragmented Palestinian society, Mr Arafat still appears to be the only one who can hold the pieces together.

And it is not only members of the neighbourhood watch who are at risk as they are forced to turn from protecting the community to helping their families dodge bullets.

The Israelis, too, push at these fault lines at their peril.

See also:

18 Oct 01 | Middle East
Israel buries murdered minister
17 Oct 01 | Middle East
Questions over Israel security failure
08 Sep 01 | Middle East
West Bank schooldays
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