AS THE shakily-constructed Oslo process began slowly to totter under the assault of PLO automatic rifles in October, the Clinton administration took urgent steps to shore it up.

Israeli and Arab leaders were summoned to Washington for a summit which achieved little more than an uncomfortable press conference, and high-powered US diplomats were sent to the region to push difficult negotiations along.

There was always a better than even chance that the "peace process" would founder over Jerusalem, and in particular, over the Temple Mount. But when gun-battles between Israeli troops and PLO police erupted, the trigger was a surprisingly arbitrary one: the opening by Israeli authorities in late September of an exit to an excavated ancient tunnel in the Old City.

The PLO and its allies were quick to seize on the event as a means to increase pressure on Israel. On the day the tunnel opening was made, and several days before the violence flared, Arafat encouraged his police force in Gaza with the Koranic verse: "They shall fight for the cause of Allah, and they shall kill and be killed."

To their cries of "The soul and the blood we will give for you!" Arafat exhorted his army: "The Palestinian people will not keep its hands tied, in the face of this offence against its holy places ..."

The PLO leader had been searching for a way to play the violence card. Just a month before, he had tried to incite mass action by fastening onto the demolition by the Jerusalem municipality of an illegally-built Arab community centre. He declared a strike and urged hundreds of thousands of Muslims to protest at the Temple Mount. But the issue failed to ignite passions, and that attempt fizzled out.

Arafat and his associates had also been warning for some time that a "return to the gun" was possible, and emphasised that the PLO now had a 30,000-strong army at its disposal in the autonomous areas.

The tunnel gave him the opening he needed, a manufactured provocation to spark Islamic rage, a modern-day equivalent of the mediaeval blood libels which prefaced pogroms against Jews.

"It was a script," wrote New York Times columnist Abe Rosenthal. "Mr Arafat took 36 hours to organise police-backed riots against the opening of a new door to an ancient archaeological tunnel. Then he turned the armed riots on. When he was good and ready, he turned them off."

IDF chief of staff Lieut-Gen Amnon Lipkin-Shahak, said the violence in Ram'Allah, where the most serious clashes occurred, had not been spontaneous, but formed a definite part of a planned operation.

Several media outlets subsequently reported that Arafat had planned the gunfights in advance, having gone so far as to station sharp-shooters with telescopic sights at strategic points in anticipation of the battles breaking out.

Even after the casualties began to mount, the PLO chose confrontation. Israeli Internal Security Minister Avigdor Kahalani called on Arafat to help in calming the unrest. Instead, his PLO Authority called for east Jerusalem residents to "express their anger" against what it called the "desecration of the holy places".

For President Bill Clinton, the crisis provided an ideal opportunity shortly before the US election to play tough with Arafat, whose incendiary role in the most serious violation yet of signed agreements, PLO police firing on Israeli troops, was evident.

The US chose, however, to validate the Arab claim to be the aggrieved party, by calling on Israel to close the tunnel. Netanyahu refused.

If Clinton stressed to Arafat that the war option had expired, the PLO chairman clearly appeared not to have taken the warning too seriously. Less than two weeks later he was informing his PLO Authority legislative council in Ram'Allah:
"Netanyahu has to know that nobody can threaten the Palestinian people ... There is no doubt we must be prepared for all contingencies." (The Jerusalem Post, October 11).

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