More violence in Gaza

As the Bush administration comes out in favor of a Palestinian state, more violence in the region keeps the Israelis and Palestinians apart.

Published October 4, 2001 8:00AM (EDT)

The same day President Bush, for the very first time, insisted that the establishment of a Palestinian state was central to U.S. plans for Middle East peace, two young Israelis were killed and 15 injured when Palestinian gunmen armed with assault rifles and hand grenades infiltrated Elei Sinai, a small Jewish settlement in the Gaza Strip by the Mediterranean Sea.

And at dawn Wednesday, exactly a week after Israel and the Palestinians sat down to sign a cease-fire, Israeli bulldozers and tanks penetrated Palestinian territory in a retaliatory raid on Palestinian positions and a police station that left at least six Palestinians dead.

The numbers are depressing, the routine violence numbing: At least 28 people have died since last week's cease-fire, the sixth broken truce in a year. The attack in Elei Sinai, the first of its kind on a Gaza Jewish settlement, buried hopes that Israelis and Palestinians would find their way back to the negotiating table in the near future despite a recent push by the United States to ease tensions in the Middle East.

Earlier Tuesday President Bush had encouraging words for the Palestinian people, whose attempts to secure a national homeland, through futile wars and failed negotiations, have never been successful. Responding to journalists after the New York Times reported that the United States had been ready to unveil an ambitious diplomatic initiative to solve the Palestinian-Israeli conflict before the Sept. 11 terror attacks, Bush said "the idea of a Palestinian state has always been part of a vision, as long as the right of Israel to exist is respected."

The statement was greeted enthusiastically by Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and by other leaders of the Arab world, whose support the United States is courting. But it failed to stir up high hopes on the ground. "Recognition of a Palestinian state was already part of Clinton's ideas after Camp David," noted Ghassan Khatib, head of the Jerusalem Media and Communications Center, a Palestinian think tank. "Are we supposed to be happy with the same thing twice? It's a positive thing from a political point of view but until Americans make a concrete move, it's just a repetition of something the previous president said."

While Bush's backing of a Palestinian state may not have had an effect on the street in Gaza, it clearly had repercussions inside Sharon's government. Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon warned Bush's move could "backfire" Tuesday, a sentiment echoed by Israel's ambassador to the United States, Zalman Shoval

Shoval said it was "probably not wrong" to interpret Bush's endorsement of a Palestinian state as part of the U.S. effort to bring moderate Arab and Muslim states to its latest international coalition, but warned that the United States may be sending a message that terrorism works. "Quite logically, the Palestinians could say 'Thank you bin Laden,'" he told Agence France-Presse.

Meanwhile, Israeli analysts are already predicting that Tuesday's attack on the Elei Sinai settlement by terrorists affiliated with Hamas, a militant Islamic group, will serve as a model for future operations. Gaza's 16 settlements are tempting targets: some 6,500 Israelis live there in comfortable homes, surrounded by agricultural fields and well-watered lawns, while 1.1 million Palestinians live, mostly in squalor, in the rest of the 147-square-mile Gaza Strip. (Israeli settlements, which occupy more than a fifth of the land, also use the lion's share of the water in the dusty, overcrowded strip.) Because settlements are also frequently home to military outposts that are there to protect settlers, many Palestinians view attacks on settlements as legitimate acts of war.

Although Arafat condemned Tuesday's attack in more vigorous terms than customary and vowed to take measures against those responsible, the chances of him actually arresting Palestinians guilty of violating the tattered cease-fire are very slim. On Tuesday for example, Arafat's police arrested Ataf Abayat, the commander of the Tanzim militia in Bethlehem responsible for murdering an Israeli woman, but released him after a few hours after fellow Tanzim fighters threatened to resume shooting at Gilo, a Jewish neighborhood annexed by Israel south of Jerusalem. The release of murderers under pressure from other gunmen (a scenario repeated many times elsewhere in the West Bank and the Gaza strip) can be read as a sign of Arafat's political weakness and unwillingness -- or perhaps inability -- to impose an unpopular cease-fire.

"The public can not understand the arrest of people involved in the resistance," explained Khatib, the Palestinian analyst. "They believe that in the absence of a peace process, resistance is legitimate." Dismissing last week's efforts to renew diplomatic talks as unsubstantial, he added, "The cease-fire was not convincing. Israel did not lift its restrictions [on movements in and out of Palestinian towns]. No checkpoints were removed. We look around and see that in the week since the cease-fire, dozens of Palestinians were killed -- four of them children. In this atmosphere it is difficult to understand the cease-fire."

Arafat's inability to lead his people out of the present deadly status quo has brought his popularity ratings down to 23.5 percent, according to a recent survey published by Khatib's media center. But it is unthinkable that Arafat would leave the scene and let someone else give it a go. "Arafat's popularity is low but others' are even lower," said Khatib. "Arafat has no competition. It's a reflection of the lack of hope, of anything that would be inspiring."

The political game seems equally stuck on the Israeli side. Despite repeated threats by Israel's dovish Foreign Minister Shimon Peres to walk out of the government, and piercing cries from its super-hawkish former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, eager to make a comeback, Sharon's left-right coalition has shown remarkable stability. It thrives on the status quo: The promise of substantial diplomatic negotiations exists way out in the blue, on an ever-receding horizon. Such promises always hinge on the cessation of all violence on the ground, which will almost certainly never happen, and therefore they don't risk exposing ideological faults between Cabinet ministers.

At the same time, there is almost no risk of seeing a dramatic military escalation of the conflict that would test the left's ability to stomach civilian casualties and aggressive Israeli-initiated actions, because of international pressure to act with restraint.

Voices on the right, including in top army ranks, have repeatedly called for tougher action against the Palestinian Authority and the elimination of its leader Arafat, and this week Peres blasted such pressure to the Israeli paper Yediot Ahronoth. But his revelation was only noteworthy in its timing; the existence of such sentiments within the military is no surprise. Nor is the fact that Sharon's hands, when it comes to dealing with Arafat, are tied. "Although Sharon believes in his heart that Arafat is bin Laden, he knows that the Americans, despite the attack last night, will not allow him to draw the necessary conclusions," wrote Hemi Shalev, a senior political commentator in the Israeli daily Ma'ariv. "Chances are, as usual, that even from this incident Arafat will be able to squeeze another 'chance.'"

And so the news that the U.S. had planned a major diplomatic Middle East initiative, and may still push Sharon for concessions, did not significantly advance the peace process this week. Bush himself hinted that neither his words nor any amount of diplomatic legwork by the State Department would bring about an end to the conflict, and that Israelis and Palestinians themselves have to decrease the level of daily violence. "First things first when it comes to the Middle East, we've got to get to Mitchell," he said with his trademark shorthand, referring to recommendations on how to get to a real cease-fire drafted by the international commission headed by former Sen. George Mitchell last May.

But "getting to Mitchell" seems like a long shot. Israel's security Cabinet, convened during the Gaza settlement crisis, decided to return to the no-holds-barred military policy that prevailed before last week's truce was signed. In practice, this means new Israeli incursions into Palestinian-ruled territory to establish better frontal positions, the destruction of Palestinian infrastructure and the resumption of "targeted killings." As the past year's tit-for-tat cycle of violence has shown however, new Israeli trenches, roadblocks and assassinations are sure to trigger fresh rounds of Palestinian shootings and terrorist attacks.

By Flore de Preneuf

Flore de Preneuf is a Jerusalem writer and photographer.

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