THE Israeli prime minister, Ehud Barak, issued an ultimatum to the Palestinians last night, threatening to call off the peace process if they did not bring an end within 48 hours to the wave of violence sweeping the country.
After 10 days of clashes that have claimed at least 81 lives - the overwhelming majority of them Palestinians - and left more than 2,000 people wounded, Barak warned Yasser Arafat, the Palestinian leader, that Israeli troops would act with "full force". He issued his ultimatum after Islamic Hezbollah guerrillas seized three Israeli soldiers in an ambush near the disputed Shebaa farms area on the Lebanese-Syrian border.
"Until now, my orders were to exercise restraint, not to initiate, but just to react," Barak said after an emergency session of his cabinet and army commanders. "If we do not see a change in the patterns of violence in the next two days, we will see this as a cessation of the peace talks by Arafat."
The Israeli leader also vowed to win the return of the three soldiers, warning Lebanon and Syria that they were responsible for the captives' safety. Hezbollah had earlier offered to exchange their captives for Lebanese detainees held in Israel.
The Palestinians reacted angrily to the ultimatum, however. Yaser Abed Rabbo, the information minister, said he would not bow to "Israeli threats". If the peace process was dead, "it [has been] killed by Mr Barak and his tactics and manouevres", he said.
The Palestinians were also backed by the Syrian government, which said that military operations launched by Hezbollah, in which the soldiers were seized, were legitimate.
There was concern in Washington, however, at the dramatic turn of events. President Bill Clinton cancelled a domestic fundraising trip to telephone both Barak and Arafat.
Earlier in the day, at least two Palestinians died and 12 were wounded when Israeli soldiers fired at 600 protesters demonstrating on the Lebanese border. In a separate incident, four Lebanese civilians, including a child, were wounded when a helicopter gunship fired at their car as they drove along a border road. Hezbollah guerrillas fired shells into Israel as Israeli warplanes were scrambled into action.
It was the first time that violence had spilled over the border with Lebanon since Israel ended its 18-year occupation of the south of the country in May.
Israeli military units were put on their highest alert for 10 years. The army has also sealed off the West Bank and Gaza Strip, preventing Palestinians from entering Israel until tomorrow evening, the end of Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the Jewish year.
The anger of the Palestinians has been long in building. The failure to agree a peace deal - crucially, to find a status for Jerusalem acceptable to both sides - has left them virtual prisoners in their own cities; while Israel has withdrawn from the main towns, it still occupies the land and roads between them.
Although Barak is leader of the Labour party, his policies have differed only in style from those of Benjamin Netanyahu, his hardline predecessor. Barak has refused to make further agreed withdrawals and allowed the expansion of Jewish settlements on the West Bank at a rate not even Netanyahu dared.
Sources in Jerusalem revealed that, incredibly, it was Barak who gave the green light for Ariel Sharon, Netanyahu's successor as leader of the rightwing Likud party, to visit Haram al-Sharif, the Islamic holy site in the Old City on September 28, that set off the current wave of violence.
The site is also sacred to the Jews and Sharon wanted to assert their claim. He did not just visit, however. He and hundreds of police invaded the walled compound. Israeli police beat Palestinian officials who tried to bar the doors to the Al-Aqsa mosque.
It has emerged that Barak overruled his own security chiefs in allowing the visit, apparently because he underestimated the strength of Palestinian anger and their attachment to Jerusalem.
Even among non-practising Muslims, there is a deep feeling for the city that has no corollary in the West. At Camp David, when President Bill Clinton urged Arafat to cede sovereignty of Jerusalem to the Israelis in return for a "custody" arrangement, Arafat said if he did so there would be a bloody religious war.
His words last week seemed prophetic as Muslims from the Middle East to Pakistan protested against Israeli actions in Jerusalem. Saudi Arabia saw its first demonstration ever.
Every Palestinian town or village has been affected by the violence. In one typical clash last week, youths began stoning Israeli soldiers at a checkpoint on the northern border of the town of Ramallah. The soldiers sat behind sand bags or in armoured vehicles.
As more boys joined in and the crowd surged forward after about an hour, the Israelis fired a few grenades of tear gas. Suddenly, without warning, at least one soldier opened fire with live ammunition. He appeared to be a sniper because he chose his targets carefully.
One boy fell to the ground, blood pumping from his chest. The courage, or recklessness, of the others was astonishing: they ran forward and carried him back to waiting ambulances. Another boy fell, hit in the shoulder.
Such scenes were repeated daily. One of the most vicious came on Friday, when youths leaving prayers at Haram al-Sharif began stoning Israeli guards, vowing to "liberate" Al-Aqsa mosque. The battle raged for hours as Israelis fired back with rubber bullets. They regained control of the compound only as darkness fell.
Early yesterday, Israel evacuated 10 soldiers and religious Jews who had been besieged all week inside Joseph's tomb, a tiny compound in the middle of the Palestinian city of Nablus. Despite appeals for calm from their leaders, crowds of Palestinians started fires at the site and attacked it with crowbars. They later raised their flag over it.
The majority of those taking part in the demonstrations are far from fanatics. More than half of those killed have been aged 15 or under.
Mohammed Nabil Daoud, 14, went down to the Ramallah crossroads last week only be-cause a boy from the next neighbourhood, Nizar Aid, also 14, had been killed the day before.
He prepared as any boy of his age would have done: he put on his favourite green shirt and jeans and took out his Mickey Mouse wallet. In it was a half dinar from Kuwait, where he was born and which the family fled when Iraq invaded, photos of sports cars cut from magazines and a sticker from Peace Now, the left-wing Israeli group. His family found it on his body. He was shot in the head by an Israeli soldier.
Last week his family re-ceived friends under a green plastic tent in their yard, set up for the traditional mourning period. Nabil Daoud, Mohammed's father, showed a picture of his son: a large-eyed, mischievous-looking boy in scout uniform, with a yellow scarf at his throat and a black beret on his head.
There is no doubt that Mohammed was throwing stones, as were most of those killed last week. But when one sees the site of his death - Israeli soldiers 100 yards away, protected by defensive gear, armoured vehicles and a fortress - it is hard to justify their claim that they shoot only when their lives are threatened.
There was no end in sight to the violence last week. Arafat refused to sign an American-drafted agreement hammered out in Paris with Madeleine Albright, the American secretary of state, and Barak because it opened with a call for the Palestinians to end the violence.
Arafat has given no order for his police to stop the stone- throwers, and tacit permission for members of Fatah, his political party, to fire in defence.
The Palestinian leader has little choice: he would face the fury of his own people if he ordered them to stop without a concession from the Israelis.Arafat's advisers said he would hold out for his demand that an international inquiry be formed to investigate Israeli actions. Barak has so far refused.
An apocalyptic warning from the same security chiefs who predicted the outcome of Sharon's Al-Aqsa visit suggests that Arab states could consider going to war again if Israel moves in to reoccupy Palestinian territory.
Any progress towards peace in the Middle East is far off.
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