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Arafat supporters march, mark Intefadeh
( 2003-09-29 10:30) (Agencies)

Thousands of Palestinians marched through the streets of the West Bank on Sunday to support Yasser Arafat as they marked the third anniversary of the latest violent uprising, or intefadeh, which has claimed thousands of lives.

Palestinians carry a huge Palestinian flag during a mass anti-Israel march, marking the third anniversary of the beginning of the current period of conflict between Israel and the Palestinians, in the northern West Bank town of Nablus, Sept. 28, 2003. [AP]
The demonstration came as the Palestinians appeared set to appoint a new Cabinet filled with Arafat loyalists, despite efforts by the United States and Israel to sideline the Palestinian leader, whom they accuse of fomenting terror attacks.

Also Sunday, members of Islamic Jihad said one of their members was responsible for a weekend shooting attack on a West Bank settlement that killed two Israelis one an infant but they stopped short of claiming responsibility.

The intefadeh began Sept. 28, 2000, after Israel's then-opposition leader Ariel Sharon, now prime minister, visited the hotly contested Jerusalem holy site known to Muslims as Haram as-Sharif and to Jews as the Temple Mount.

Palestinians called the visit a provocation, because Sharon emphasized Israel's claim of sovereignty. Violent clashes followed, and grew into three years of violence marked by repeated terror attacks against Israelis and Israeli military strikes into Palestinian areas. A total of 2,477 people have been killed on the Palestinian side and 860 on the Israeli side.

Today, the "road map" peace plan, stalled but still on the table, offers the Palestinians a state by 2005 if the violence ends. If the violence continues, the result could be a complete collapse of the Palestinian Authority.

The Islamic militant group Hamas, responsible for scores of suicide bombings against Israel, marked the anniversary Sunday with a pledge to continue the uprising nonetheless.

In a statement released in Gaza, Hamas reiterated its opposition to the U.S.-backed "road map" peace plan and called on the Palestinian Authority and the new Cabinet to uphold the Palestinians' right to resist the occupation.

In the West Bank city of Nablus, about 5,000 people from an array of Palestinian factions marched in support of Arafat and called for the intefadeh to continue.

Hamas supporters carried miniature versions of an Israeli bus and warplane to the center of town and burned them. Dozens of people dressed as suicide bombers wore mock explosive belts.

In Cairo, Egypt, nearly 300 people rallying to mark the anniversary called on the Egyptian government to open the door to a holy war against Israel, to expel the Israeli ambassador and to abolish the 1979 peace treaty between the two countries. The protesters were surrounded by at least 400 police officers in riot gear.

Israel says Arafat's Palestinian Authority has done nothing to stop suicide bombings and other attacks by Palestinian militants. In response, it has refused to deal with Arafat and, along with the United States, pushed for the appointment of a Palestinian prime minister as part of an effort to weaken the leader.

The first prime minister, Mahmoud Abbas, resigned Sept. 6 after just four months in office after continuing struggles with Arafat over control of the security forces. Abbas' replacement, Ahmed Qureia, is a longtime Arafat aide unlikely to challenge him.

On Saturday, Qureia presented his Cabinet choices to Arafat for review and then gave them to the Arafat-controlled Fatah movement for approval.

The new Cabinet, expected to be approved by the Palestinian parliament in the coming days, appears to resolve the conflict over the security forces in Arafat's favor.

Security chief and Arafat rival Mohammed Dahlan has been left out of the new government. Instead, a longtime Arafat ally, Maj. Gen. Nasser Yousef, was to become interior minister, putting him in charge of the security forces, Palestinian officials said.

Under a new arrangement, Arafat will head a 12-member national security council that will set policy and work with the interior minister. Yousef has worked with Arafat for nearly four decades.

The replacement of Dahlan makes it even less likely the Palestinians will crack down on militant groups, as called for in the road map.

Israel has said it will not work with a Cabinet controlled by Arafat. However, Sharon has said Qureia will be judged on his deeds.

In a further effort to weaken the Palestinian leader, Israel's security Cabinet decided Sept. 11 to "remove" Arafat interpreted as a threat to either expel or kill him. Sharon implied that action will be taken against Arafat if there is another major suicide bombing with heavy casualties.

On Sunday night, Israeli soldiers began searching houses bordering Arafat's Ramallah compound.

Israel's threat has greatly boosted Arafat's flagging popularity among Palestinians, but Sharon has attributed the recent lull in major attacks to the threat.

Palestinian militant groups are concerned that if they launch an attack they could be blamed for Israeli action against Arafat; at the same time, the groups have spawned small cells that could act independently, Palestinian officials said.

Earlier Sunday, members of the Islamic Jihad said a militant, Mahmoud Hamdan, 22, carried out a shooting attack Friday night on a West Bank settlement at the start of Jewish New Year celebrations. However, Islamic Jihad stopped short of claiming responsibility for the attack, which killed Eyal Yiberbaum, 27, and 7-month-old Shaked Avraham.

Hamdan, from Dura, a village south of Hebron, was killed by Israeli troops during the attack and buried Sunday. He had been released two months ago from an Israeli jail after serving a 14-month sentence, his relatives said. They would not say why he was in jail.

The shooting at Negahot came a day after Israeli troops targeted Islamic Jihad militants in raids in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, killing four members of the group. An Israeli soldier was also killed.

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