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A Palestinian Civil War?

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FAYEZ NURELDINE/AFP

Palestinian protesters and riot police face each other as clashes erupted

TIME.com: Palestinian Authority police on Tuesday shot dead three Palestinian students protesting the U.S. air strikes on Afghanistan. Could this herald the beginning of a Palestinian civil war between radical Islamists and Yasser Arafat?

Jamil Hamad: It's not a civil war, but it may be the beginning of a major Palestinian opposition movement against Arafat, including not only Hamas and Jihad Islami, but even many ordinary people who are not Islamists. Osama Bin Laden, in his videotaped appearance on Sunday, captured the hearts of the Palestinians in the way he expressed sympathy and solidarity with them. What happened in Gaza, and also in Nablus today where there was a peaceful march condemning the American raids on Afghanistan — this is an expression of anti-American feeling. The protests are occurring not simply because Bin Laden expressed those sentiments supporting the Palestinians, but also because the campaign against him is being waged by the United States of America, which is a big supporter of Israel. So these expressions of sympathy and solidarity with the Afghan people and Osama Bin Laden are another way of expressing anti-American feeling because of America's support for Israel.

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Did President Bush's comments last week in support of the principle of a Palestinian state help reduce that anti-American feeling among Palestinians?

In Palestinian minds, President Bush's statement was empty — a check drawn on a non-existent bank account with no credit or deposit. I think President Bush was simply trying to give political cover to the Saudis and Egyptians and Jordanians to join the anti-terrorism coalition by assuring them that the U.S. is still keeping their concerns in mind.

Still, the PA certainly appears to be trying to use the moment to ingratiate itself with Washingtonů

Yes, but that doesn't represent any great political weight among Palestinians, nor among the Arab states aligning with Washington. The Palestinian Authority is essentially powerless, and incapable of delivering Palestinian support.

Following the shooting, the PA has called for unity. Until now the Islamists have avoided a direct confrontation with Arafat — will that change following Monday's events?

That could happen. But many of the Islamists have said all along that they are not going to observe cease-fire. The military wing of Hamas does not accept the formula Arafat is offering, that there should be a cease fire because in return the Americans are going to help the Palestinians. As one Islamist said to me, "In such cases, if he wants us to stop, let's see what he has on the table. What kind of offers does he have? He has only promises, and these promises don't buy a cup of coffee."

How have ordinary people responded to the shooting of Palestinians by Palestinians?

People are very angry at the PA. Today in Gaza, they are chanting anti-PA slogans in refugee camps. The man in the street is very angry because three Palestinians were killed and 55 injured for saying no to America. And many Palestinians believe they have a right to express this point of view.

Would it be correct to say, then, that Yasser Arafat might be in serious trouble if it were not for Ariel Sharon?

Yes. The Israelis are still in PA-controlled territory in Hebron and in northern Gaza, and gun battles continue. That alone may be enough to keep the different Palestinian factions from letting their differences go too far. In the end, they are more likely to remain united for their immediate struggle against the Israelis — even though those ongoing battles sometimes embarrass Arafat also.