Anger is growing among Palestinians over America's Middle East policy after the Bush administration endorsed Israel's military siege of Yasser Arafat's headquarters and said it was considering sanctions against him.
Palestinian moderates warn that the hardening of the US position which is at odds with the Europeans is counter-productive as it will strengthen militant armed groups, making it harder to prevent bloody attacks on Israel. Only a few months ago President Bush was talking about a two-state solution to the Israel-Palestinian conflict, and US Secretary of State Colin Powell referred to the need for an end to the Israeli occupation.
But the White House has since turned its back on Mr Arafat, particularly after the discovery of the Karine-A, a ship loaded with arms intercepted by Israeli commandos in the Red Sea. The US says the Palestinian Authority was behind the operation. Mr Bush has declared himself to be "very disappointed" in the Palestinian leader, whom he is squeezing harder than ever to crack down on militants.
Palestinians have long seen Washington as pro-Israel, but now many believe that Mr Bush is standing back while Ariel Sharon, Israel's prime minister, plans to strengthen his grip on the West Bank, destroying the Palestinian Authority and burying all chances of a two-state solution.
Some PLO moderates have urged Mr Arafat to turn the tables on Israel by calling overdue general elections and standing as a pro-peace candidate. They argue that the international community would be likely to rally to his support, not least for fear that the Islamic-nationalist Hamas might win. Mr Arafat could demand international election monitors and would have a stronger case for insisting on an end to Israeli closures, to allow campaigning. He has yet to respond to their advice.
Arab criticism of the US focuses on the fact that it is pressing Mr Arafat to jail armed groups killing Israelis, and yet has less and less to say about Israel's conduct, particularly the use of F-16 war planes and its repeated assassinations.
"There is a serious short-sightedness on the part of those making policy," said Dr Mustafa Barghouthi, a leading moderate. "They are underestimating the impact that it could have on the whole of the Middle East."
Concern appears to be shared by others. "There is a risk that we will now see attacks on Western targets in Israel," said one Western source.
Early yesterday Israeli F-16s were in action again, bombing security buildings in the West Bank and Gaza City, injuring two. This was in retaliation to Friday's Islamic Jihad suicide bombing in Tel Aviv, which injured more than a dozen.
© 2002 lndependent Digital (UK) Ltd