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Last Updated: Friday, 21 January 2005, 18:45 GMT
Palestinians face crucial Gaza test

By Alan Johnston
BBC News, on the Gaza-Israel border

Palestinian police check a Palestinian taxi near the Erez crossing between Israel and the Gaza Strip
The Palestinian Authority is under pressure to keep the peace
Just up ahead I can see the new Palestinian check-point on the main road out to Israel.

I have been watching three Palestinian soldiers stopping and searching taxis and other cars, and for the first time in years - under a new agreement with Israel - these Palestinian security men are being allowed to go armed in this sensitive area close to Israeli settlements.

Driving around I have seen about a dozen Palestinian military jeeps on patrol.

But you get the feeling that much of this is rather symbolic - these patrols will not stop the rocket attacks if the militants are determined to carry them out from the fields around me.

The Palestinian leadership knows that it has to persuade the militants that the time has come to stop their attacks and it is time to negotiate with Israel.

No confrontation

Gaza's police chief, General Saib al-Ajez, told me how he hoped things might unfold:

"We are thinking of collecting weapons through negotiations with the militant factions and putting them in some kind of storage. This first step will be under the supervision of the factions, then they will see the Palestinian situation will improve.

It is not easy to kill someone who is bearing a weapon to defend his nation
General Saib al-Ajez
Gaza police chief
"After that we will demand that these weapons are handed in. When that happens, controlling the situation will be very easy, but collecting their weapons by force, I don't think anyone in the Palestinian Authority can do that, or even think about it."

Gaza is one of the most crowded, claustrophobic places on earth. Everybody here dreads the thought of the security forces clashing with the militants.

General Ajez put it in emotional terms.

"This internal conflict between police and the militants cannot happen. It is forbidden. We are a single nation and many people know each other and it is not easy to kill someone who is bearing a weapon to defend his nation."

For now, at least, there seem to be signs that the militants might be heeding the call to ease back.

There have been no rocket attacks for two days now - the longest period of calm in Gaza for many months.


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