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Palestinians Curtail Gunfire to Reduce Their Own Casualties

Protests: Move is seen as a change of tactics rather than an adherence to the cease-fire pact with Israel.


HEBRON, West Bank — The decline of bloodshed in the daily clashes between stone-throwing Palestinian youths and Israeli military forces in the West Bank and Gaza Strip appears to be more a result of a shift in Palestinian tactics than of compliance with last week's cease-fire.

Immediately after Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat and former Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres agreed to terms of a truce Wednesday night, Arafat reportedly ordered a halt to the firing of live ammunition in or around the rock-throwing demonstrations at the heart of the current Palestinian uprising. In turn, Israeli forces--who insist that they fire live ammunition into demonstrations only when fired upon--are shooting less.

At the same time, however, Palestinians have stepped up more carefully planned armed attacks on Jewish settlements and on Israeli Defense Forces units that patrol much of the region. Evidence of the shift comes in daily situation reports issued by the Israeli forces.

Sunday evening, for example, a husband and wife from the Jewish settlement of Maaleh Levona, north of Ramallah in the West Bank, were shot in a drive-by attack as they returned home from work. Shots also were fired Sunday into the Jewish settlement at Beitar Ilit, southwest of Jerusalem, while here in Hebron, Palestinian gunmen engaged in a large-scale firefight Saturday evening with Jewish settlers and Israeli military units.

Palestinians consider Jewish settlements in the West Bank legitimate targets because most were established in violation of international law.

Analysts tracking the conflict believe that the change in Palestinian tactics was motivated in part by a growing disquiet among Palestinian business and community leaders about the uprising's high casualty rate.

Figures released Sunday by the Palestine Red Crescent Society indicated that 156 Palestinians have died in the more than five weeks since the uprising began--10 times the number of Israeli deaths. Two of those fatalities occurred Sunday in the Gaza Strip. A 16-year-old boy was shot dead during clashes with Israeli soldiers in the eastern Gaza Strip, while a second youth was killed at Karni near the border with Israel.

In an attempt to revive diplomatic efforts to resolve the crisis, President Clinton is scheduled to meet with Arafat in Washington on Thursday and with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak three days later.

One reason for the uprising's lopsided death toll has been that many of the Palestinian gunmen are eager but ill-trained and their actions have triggered far more precise and all-to-often lethal responses from Israeli forces.

"With the presence of guns, the presence of amateurs, they were picking a big fight with the Israelis, and the Israelis show no mercy," said Bashar Masri, a prominent Ramallah businessman who was among those urging the Palestinian authorities to prevent shooting during rock-throwing demonstrations. "It is not a fair fight, and we don't want it."

Added Ghassan Khatib, a Jerusalem-based Palestinian analyst: "The shooting component of this intifada is not popular."

Removing shooters from the Palestinian demonstrations has several advantages for Arafat, analysts believe. In addition to ending a tactic unpopular among his own supporters, it can be expected to win him leverage at the negotiating table by demonstrating that he both has the power to adjust the level of violence and is willing to adjust it downward.

The shift also is likely to prove a net gain for the Palestinians in the court of world opinion--a pivotal venue for Arafat if his uprising is to succeed. The sight of Israeli soldiers shooting unarmed youngsters has generated considerable sympathy for the Palestinians, but the fight is viewed as much fairer when television footage shows Palestinians also armed.

"The intifada must continue in the traditional way--with stones and not arms," said Hebron's Palestinian mayor, Mustafa Natshe. "Only this way can we have the world on our side."

By launching attacks on settlements and military targets, the Palestinians also hope to cut into Israeli morale, analysts believe. Although such tactics carry the risk that Israel might hit back with major punitive strikes, even those could act in the Palestinians' favor if public opinion sees them as victims of military force.

The shift in tactics comes as several international human rights organizations have condemned Israel for using excessive force in confronting Palestinian demonstrators. On Sunday, the Assn. for Civil Rights in Israel joined the outcry, urging Israeli authorities to show more restraint and to avoid shooting at the heads and upper bodies of demonstrators during street clashes with Palestinians.

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