Israeli forces imposed a fresh blockade on several West Bank towns on 17 January following an upsurge in violence sparked off by the killing three days previously of one of the leaders of the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, a military offshoot of Arafat’s Fatah movement. Raad Karmi was killed in a bomb blast outside his home in Tulkarm. The Brigade said after the killing that it would no longer be bound by the ceasefire called for by Arafat on 16 December.

Palestinian resentment has also been stoked by the destruction by Israeli bulldozers of some 80 homes near the Gaza Strip town of Rafah. The action, taken in apparent retaliation for an attack on a nearby Israeli security post on 9 January, was harshly criticised by sections of the Israeli press.

Arafat’s security forces on 16 January arrested Ahmed Saadat, leader of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), for questioning about the August assassination of an Israeli cabinet minister by members of the group. Israel has dismissed the arrest, which has provoked outrage among Palestinian factions.

Arafat has rejected Israeli accusations that the Palestinian Authority (PA) was implicated in an alleged attempt to smuggle weapons from Iran to Gaza aboard a ship intercepted by Israel in the Red Sea on 3 January. Arafat told the Egyptian daily, Al-Ahram, on 15 January that the affair had been concocted by Israel to discredit the PA. He said it would have been impossible to land such a quantity of weapons on the heavily patrolled Gaza coast, and he questioned why Israel stopped the ship in international waters rather than waiting until it got close to its supposed destination. He said the ship’s captain, whose statements after his arrest by Israel appeared to implicate the PA, had left the Palestinian naval forces in 1999.

Arafat said he had requested US help in investigating the arms shipment affair.