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Friday, 25 January, 2002, 18:45 GMT
Yasser Arafat's dilemma
Palestinian militants
Palestinian militants say they cannot keep the ceasefire
By Barbara Plett in Nablus

The door of the flat is a skeleton of twisted metal bars.

Inside it is dark. The walls have been charred by explosives and raked by bullets. The bedroom is a mess of blankets and mattresses shot into bits of sponge, I smell the stench of blood as I pass the bathroom.

This is a new ground zero in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, there are many, and they change as rapidly as automatic gunfire.

They will push him to the corner and then there will be no other choice for him except to put a dramatic end to the revolutionary soul among the Palestinian people, and he will never manage to do that

Fatah activist Hossam Khader
Israeli commandos stormed this flat in the West Bank town of Nablus at four in the morning on 22 January.

They said they killed four dangerous terrorists in a gun battle and dismantled a large explosives laboratory. They displayed what they said were the bomb-making materials to journalists.

Revenge and response

According to Palestinian witnesses the men, senior Hamas militants, were killed in cold blood with shots to the head, three in their beds, one in the bath.

They describe mutilated bodies, they ask why the building did not blow up when explosives were used during the raid of the alleged bomb factory.

The apartment stormed by Israeli commandos
Israel says the apartment was a being used as a bomb factory
However it happened, the script has already been written for what comes next. The Palestinian struggle against occupation appears to have degenerated into random revenge attacks that bring crushing Israeli responses.

Or is there more going on?

End to ceasefire

The funeral prayers for the dead rumble with the promise of further bloodshed. The gloves are off, Palestinian fighters say they cannot keep the ceasefire called by Yasser Arafat last month if Israel kills their leaders.

For Hamas that means a return to attacks on civilians in Israel.

Some 15,000 Palestinians attended the funeral of the four men
Some 15,000 Palestinians attended the funeral of the four men
A different militia has already beat them to it, one that is linked to Mr Arafat's own Fatah faction.

In the past ten days its gunmen have shot dead eight people in the heart of Israeli cities to avenge the army's assassination of its leader.

You can find the angry Fatah rebels in the Balata refugee camp at the edge of Nablus. Here I meet Majid, I ask him to tell me the group's strategy.

"We've agreed that the rifle will do the talking with the (Prime Minister Ariel) Sharon government," he says. "Violence for violence, killing for killing."

Majid assures me this is the only alternative now.

Leadership survival

"We left the political option to our political leadership and to the international circle," he says. "We looked up to the US sponsor of the peace process but the US is the one who supports the terror against us.

"Our abilities are limited but what we have is our will and our martyrs."

They also have something else: power.

Yasser Arafat
The Palestinian leader is under pressure to arrest militants
The gun has given young fighters like Majid new authority in Palestinian society.

Palestinian officials who advocate the ceasefire are fully aware that their leadership depends on the survival of the regime.

Perhaps this debate is less about armed struggle against the occupation, and more about an internal struggle for power.

Yasser Arafat's dilemma

So far, Mr Arafat has characteristically manoeuvred between the two wings of the internal divide, but Israeli and American pressure for a crackdown on the militants is almost overwhelming.

"They will push him to the corner," says Fatah activist Hossam Khader, "and then there will be no other choice for him except to put a dramatic end to the revolutionary soul among the Palestinian people, and he will never manage (to do that)."

But will Mr Arafat go down that road?

He would risk not only confrontation with the militias, but also his credibility as a nationalist leader in the eyes of his people, an almost impossible option for a man who sees himself as the embodiment of Palestinian nationalism.

Or will he become again the revolutionary, and resort to the gun as many of his young fighters would like. The real ground zero in this fast-paced war depends on this decision.

See also:

25 Jan 02 | Middle East
Hamas vows revenge for militant's death
25 Jan 02 | Middle East
US 'proves' Palestinian arms link
24 Jan 02 | Middle East
'Suicide squad' killed in Gaza blast
02 Dec 01 | profiles
Who are the suicide bombers?
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