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To Mideast Sticks and Stones, Add Name-Calling

Latest volleys in a worsening war of words are also felt elsewhere in world

If such symbols as handshakes between leaders are the building blocks of peace, then symbolic insults are its wrecking ball.

It says much about just how far off track the Olso accords have slipped that, in place of real progress and regular negotiations, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has regressed to a trading of insults, even demonization.

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The Declaration of Principles that Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization outlined in 1993 called for an end to "incitement."

But in the past year, a new propaganda war has been ignited. As important as the insults themselves is the way they are read and sometimes manipulated.

The most glaring case in point is the posters, tacked up recently around the West Bank town of Hebron, that depict the Prophet Muhammad as a pig writing the Koran, the Islamic holy book. Israel has arrested and charged an art-school dropout for drawing and distributing the offensive picture. But the issue has continued to spark protests both from Palestinians and from enraged Muslims elsewhere in the world.

Many Palestinians have not accepted Israeli leaders' condemnation of the picture and apologies for the offense it caused. Some Palestinians insist it came from the government itself; others say that at the very least it was an indication of the sentiments of all Jewish settlers.

"Why do Israelis think there's a group behind every stabbing by Palestinian, but everything they do is committed by a lone gunman?" asks Mohammed Takrouri, director of Yasser Arafat's Fatah Party headquarters in Hebron. "This poster is a philosophy in the mind of the settlers."

Similarly disturbing to the Israeli side was widely televised footage this weekend of Ahmed Qurie - the Palestinian legislative council speaker known as Abu Ala - participating in a march in which Israeli flags were burned.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's Cabinet secretary and other Israeli officials hotly attacked Abu Ala, demanding an apology for what they said was a violation of the accords.

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Formerly a top peace negotiator and one of the architects of the Oslo accords, Abu Ala is almost a Palestinian dove in the eyes of Israelis.

Such seemingly surface issues have become the center of attention. The Palestinian Authority's new Web site, for example, accuses Israel of systematically damaging the Dome of the Rock mosque in Jerusalem and says Israel fabricated its claim to the adjacent Western Wall - Judaism's holiest site - in order to gain control of the Holy City.

PLO officials and Palestinian newspapers have claimed that Israel distributes aphrodisiac gum in the territories to corrupt Arab youths, and that Israeli doctors injected Palestinian children with the AIDS virus.

"It's getting worse from day to day," complains Col. Baruch Magar, the Israel Defense Force officer in charge of coordination with the Palestinians in Hebron.

Hitting at tender spots

National and religious symbols do have resonance with Israelis. The Knesset, Israel's parliament, voted yesterday to require all state schools to fly the blue-and-white flag. But feelings of insecurity may be to Israelis what insulted honor is to Palestinians.

Yesterday's United Nations General Assembly vote condemning Israel's construction of a Jewish settlement in disputed East Jerusalem seems unlikely to end the project. But Israelis complain that the Palestinians are violating the accords by bringing the matter to the UN and encouraging the world to "gang up" on Israel with international sanctions.

"Israelis are more concerned with security than anything else, not just daily security but the existence of the state as a sovereign state," says Israeli sociologist Moshe Lissak. The Palestinians are more sensitive to slights, he adds, but some of their leaders have "a record of exploiting the humiliation."

The framers of the peace accords even outlined "confidence-building measures" that were to assuage such concerns on the road to reconciliation.

But insensitivities and sometimes gross ignorance on both sides seem to have refrozen much of the icebreaking: An Israeli science magazine grafted a picture of a cow's head onto a picture of the Virgin Mary for a story on genetic cloning and grafting, apparently unaware of the picture's religious significance but upsetting Palestinian and other Christians.

Even Mr. Arafat's harshest critics say an insult to the president is taken personally by most Palestinians.

"Palestinians are proud Arabs," says Iyad Sarraj, a prominent analyst of Palestinian society. "Our identity and dignity is very important to us, and Arafat, whether you like it or not, is a symbol of our Palestinian national identity."

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