There is still little sign of the ‘road-map’ for peace that was proudly promised by US President Bush last year. Until that document appears, European governments have been told in no uncertain terms to keep clear of any attempts to broker a peace deal between the two sides. After solving a little local trouble in Baghdad, it appears President Bush wishes to sort out the Palestine question for an encore.

With the rest of the world distracted by the Iraq crisis, a new right-wing coalition government in Israel has tightened its grip on the Occupied Territories. The 5 March raid on the densely-populated refugee camp of Jalabiya, in which 15 people were killed, was followed by the creation of a 10-square-kilometre ‘security zone’ in the northern Gaza Strip. Previous Israeli incursions have been brutal but brief, and the move marks the first time the army has taken over a sizeable residential area – more than 6,000 Palestinians live in the zone. ‘We will remain for as long as necessary,’ Colonel Yoel Stick, the commander of Israel’s northern Gaza brigade, told army radio. ‘If we decide to hold on to this territory for a long time, we will.’

What a US State Department official described to MEED as ‘the increasing Beirutisation of the West Bank and Gaza’ continues, with the Islamist militant group Hamas becoming the principal target of Israeli raids. The group has vowed revenge for the assassination of four of its members, including one of its founders, Ibrahim al-Magadma, who were killed on 8 March by a missile attack from an Israeli helicopter. ‘The assassination . will launch a new stage of war against the Jews,’ warned a Hamas spokesman. ‘All leaders will be open targets for Hamas.’

The group has also criticised the decision by Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat to create a new post of prime minister, claiming it was a response to ‘US-Zionist pressures’. International pressure has certainly played a part, and Arafat has been told by both European and Middle East diplomats that easing his own grip on power is a key condition to restarting peace talks.

The new prime minister, Mahmoud Abbas, will hold few executive powers, however, and his office will deal mainly with internal affairs, including the appointment and supervision of cabinet ministers. Arafat will retain control of security and continue to act as the figurehead in any negotiations with Tel Aviv, despite the repeated refusal of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to meet him in person. With little sign of those peace talks in sight, Palestinian officials claim the move will further play into the hands of the Israeli government by creating further disunity on the Palestinian side. ‘Israel has been playing the most damaging and destructive obstructionist game,’ chief legislator Hanan Ashrawi said. ‘Not just internally in terms of Palestinian democracy, but also in terms of wreaking havoc and provoking more and more violence.’