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Monday, 22 January, 2001, 16:08 GMT
Q&A: What hope for peace?

With Israeli elections on the horizon, BBC News Online looks at the race to find a peace deal, and what lies behind the violence.

What is being discussed?

Israeli and Palestinian negotiators are focusing on a blueprint for peace proposed by Bill Clinton.

The former president stepped up his efforts in the final weeks of his office to conclude a Middle East peace deal, but only managed to persuade both sides to accept the proposals in principle as the basis for negotiations.

Both sides have expressed serious reservations to the plan, which is said to include a Palestinian state on 95% of the West Bank and all of the Gaza Strip, and Israeli concessions on east Jerusalem and the Al-Aqsa mosque.

The Palestinians' claim to a right of return for nearly four million Palestinian refugees remains a key sticking point.

Two working committees have been set up - one on Jerusalem, borders and security and the other on the question of refugees.

What's at stake in the Israeli elections?

The election contest is between incumbent prime minister Ehud Barak and his hawkish opponent Ariel Sharon.

Mr Sharon is currently leading in opinion polls.

He has said that if he wins, he will seek a long-term peace deal with the Palestinians to be implemented over several years, rather than trying to immediately resolve the most sensitive issues like the status of Jerusalem, as Mr Barak has tried to do.

There is widespread fear in Western capitals, and in the Arab world, that a Sharon victory would set back the chances for Middle East peace.

The Likud leader has rejected the concessions made by Ehud Barak at the prompting of the Clinton administration in Washington.

He insists Israel must hold onto Jerusalem and would give the Palestinians no more than the 42% of the West Bank that they already have. Some analysts say this would lead to a continuation of the current violence in the West Bank and Gaza.

How did the crisis erupt?

At the Camp David summit in May, Ehud Barak offered the Palestinians control of parts of Israeli-occupied east Jerusalem as part of a permanent peace settlement.

The talks ended in deadlock and increased tension in the region, although both sides undertook to continue efforts to come to a peace deal.

On 28 September, Ariel Sharon launched his ill-fated bid to assert Israeli sovereignty over holy sites shared between Israelis and Arabs in east Jerusalem.

His visit to Al-Aqsa mosque, which stands on a site known to Muslims as the Noble Sanctuary (Haram al-Sharif) and to Jews as Temple Mount, ended in bloody clashes at the mosque which quickly spread through the occupied Palestinian territories.

Have the Israelis used disproportionate force?

The video footage of 12-year-old Muhammad al-Durrah cowering beside his father before being shot by an Israeli soldier early on in the uprising prompted much international criticism of Israel's methods of containing the protests.

These methods include firing live ammunition and rubber coated bullets, and the use of helicopter gunships and anti-tank missiles.

Following attacks on Jewish soldiers and civilians, Israel has responded with air strikes on targets in Gaza and West Bank. Most of the time these have been empty buildings, but it has targeted members of Mr Arafat's Fatah faction.

Israel says the deaths of Muhammad al-Durrah and the long list of Palestinian children killed after him have all been "mistakes".

Correspondents say the army's own rules of engagement - not to open fire unless soldiers' lives are in danger - are routinely broken.

Is Arafat in control?

Palestinians resent allegations that the leadership can turn the violence on and off like a switch and that it is using child martyrs for anti-Israeli propaganda.

Popular feelings are running strongly against further Palestinian compromises which have been demanded by Israel, and history has shown that Mr Arafat must follow the public mood to remain as the Palestinians' sole legitimate leader.

As long as the Israeli leadership believes Yasser Arafat is orchestrating attacks against Jewish targets it says it will shun peace negotiations.

Mr Arafat has made qualified statements calling his forces to stop firing, and his commitment to a peaceful settlement with Israel remains undiminished.

But the indications are that he has given up hope of this Israeli leadership agreeing to a settlement that would meet Palestinian expectations.

But Israel holds Mr Arafat responsible for the violence, pointing to his release of dozens of Islamic militants who had been imprisoned for Israel's protection in Palestinian-controlled jails.

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