Blocking Mideast Peace
Is peace dead? Days of bloodshed between Israelis and Palestinians darken Middle East hopes
By Nomi Morris
October 7, 1996
Maclean's



Peace is like glass. You have to handle it with care. -Nobel Peace Prize winner and former Israeli prime minister Shimon Peres

It was never supposed to happen. When former Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat reached out to shake hands at the White House three years ago, a peaceful future for Arabs and Jews appeared to be in their grasp. But by last weekend, at least 56 Palestinians and 14 Israelis were dead and more than 1,000 people were wounded in the worst fighting since the early days of the 1987-1993 uprising known as the intifadeh. The most comprehensive peace process in the region's history was, if not dead, at least critically injured. "The future looks very black," said Baruch Hod, a 39-year-old computer analyst in Tel Aviv. "The hope that existed a few days ago doesn't exist any more." On the West Bank and Gaza Strip, the mood was nearly as bleak. "We have nothing to lose," yelled one Palestinian protester. "We are ready for war."

How could things have gone so wrong so quickly? Just days earlier, Israeli troops had patrolled West Bank towns together with Palestinian security forces. By last Wednesday, those same uniformed troops were shooting at each other. Just two weeks earlier, Arafat had telephoned Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin (Bibi) Netanyahu to wish him well on the Jewish New Year. By Thursday, Arafat was refusing to meet with his Israeli counterpart and Netanyahu was calling the Palestinian leader a liar.

Finally, on Saturday, four days after hostilities broke out, a relative calm descended on the strife-torn areas, and joint patrols resumed between Israeli and Palestinian forces. But after days of frantic telephone diplomacy, U.S. Secretary of State Warren Christopher and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak had yet to arrange a meeting between Netanyahu and Arafat. The Israeli leader rejected Mubarak's offer to host a meeting in Cairo with Christopher present. Arafat refused to meet Netanyahu alone, unless there were prior guarantees that his counterpart had agreed to honor the peace plan.

The spark that ignited last week's explosion was Netanyahu's decision to open a new tourist exit from an ancient tunnel near Jerusalem's holiest Muslim shrine, the Al Aqsa Mosque compound on the Temple Mount. For Arafat, Netanyahu's move was an insensitive attempt to display Israel's sovereignty over the contested city-and a perfect pretext to unleash Palestinians' anger and frustration over the stalling of the peace process since Netanyahu came to power in June. An emotional Arafat urged his people to protest against a regime that he claimed was undermining Muslim control over sacred sites and violating an Israeli commitment not to alter the status of Jerusalem until its ultimate fate has been negotiated by the two sides.

The outrage quickly spread from the Temple Mount-where Israeli troops answered stone throwers first with rubber bullets, then with real ones-to various towns across the West Bank and Gaza Strip. North of Jerusalem, in the town of Ramallah, violence erupted after more than 1,000 Palestinians marched along a highway towards an Israeli checkpoint. There was utter confusion over what role the 30,000 armed Palestinians were to play after members of Arafat's own elite Force 17 guard began to shoot at Israeli soldiers. When one police commander ordered his unit to stop firing, he was completely ignored for two hours by his men, who would not remain passive as their own people came under Israeli fire.

On Thursday, thousands of protesters rushed towards two isolated Jewish settlements in the heart of the Gaza Strip. As civilians threw stones and Molotov cocktails at the Israeli army outpost near Netzarim, hundreds of Palestinian police traded gunfire with Israeli troops backed by armored personnel carriers and helicopters. In the West Bank town of Nablus, six Israeli soldiers lay dead after rioters surrounded an army post at the shrine of Joseph's Tomb. Some Palestinian police came to the aid of their Israeli counterparts, helping several more soldiers to escape unharmed. Elsewhere, such scenes were repeated as the orders started trickling down from Arafat to co-operate with the Israelis. "Don't be afraid," yelled one Palestinian as he pulled a wounded Israeli soldier from a Jeep. Moments later, protesters set the Jeep on fire.

During Friday morning prayers, a cleric at the Al Aqsa Mosque urged his followers to "unite and protect our holy shrines." Youths promptly showered more rocks on some 3,000 Israeli forces guarding the service. The riot-equipped Israelis sent tear gas into the crowd and followed up with rubber bullets and batons. Again the violence spread beyond Jerusalem. Although Arafat issued appeals for calm through his Voice of Palestine radio station and ordered his troops to stop the rioting, nothing seemed to help. In one Gaza skirmish with Israeli troops, 20 protesters lined up to fire, one after the other, from the same rifle. "Enough bloodshed, please listen to us," one Palestinian officer pleaded, as he dragged protesters away from Israeli positions in choke holds and marched them off at gunpoint.

It was as if the horrific scenarios outlined to Israeli voters four months ago had all come to life. During a heated election campaign, supporters of the then-ruling Labour Party had predicted that the country would face a new intifadeh if Netanyahu were elected. For their part, Netanyahu's rightist Likud supporters had warned that the peace plan would lead to armed Palestinian security forces shooting Israelis. "They are shooting at us with the guns we gave them," said 18-year-old Rami Ben Zvi last week in Tel Aviv's Dizengoff Square.

Netanyahu remained firm throughout the week. His response-bolstered by tough pressure from cabinet ministers during emergency meetings-was to blame Arafat. Netanyahu reportedly rebuffed an appeal from Christopher to keep the tunnel closed beyond the weekend, saying that it would mean giving in to violence. At a news conference on Friday, he promised to crush the burgeoning rebellion and accused the Palestinian Authority of "wilful and untruthful incitement" against Israel.

But by that time, with casualties mounting and Arafat refusing to meet Netanyahu face-to-face, it mattered little who started the trouble. As Israelis and Palestinians buried their dead, the week's landscape seemed to be littered with images from the past-the more than four bloody decades of war that gripped the region before the current round of peace negotiations began in Madrid in 1991. Israeli tanks were rolling through the West Bank and Gaza Strip for the first time since 1967. The international community, led by Europe and the United Nations, was condemning an isolated Israel for failing to live up to its peace commitments. And the Arab world was uniting in support of the Palestinian cause more loudly than it had in years. The inflammatory rhetoric seemed to echo that of earlier times. "Incitement," said Netanyahu. "Massacre," said Arafat. Early in the week, even the 17-year-old peace with Egypt looked rocky after that country's deputy foreign minister said Netanyahu "needs psychiatric help" and Israeli opinion leaders accused Cairo of abandoning its impartiality as a peace broker.

By the time the violence ebbed, a refrain-sometimes sad, often angry-was repeated over and over by ordinary Israelis and Palestinians: "The peace is dead. This is a war." Significantly, scholars and experts on both sides were far more optimistic, believing that, as in earlier crises, the turmoil could ultimately jump-start the peace process. "The Palestinian Authority and the government of Israel are in the middle of major surgery, which involves matters of life and death," said Hebrew University political scientist Yaron Ezrahi. "You can't stop the operation in the middle." Still, the latest hemorrhage was both sudden and painful. "No one expected it to go to pieces so fast," said computer analyst Hod. "In three months, Bibi succeeded in destroying what it took the Labour government four years to build."

Indeed, Netanyahu's proclamations of peace seemed at odds with his policies during his first 100 days of power. Although he has said that he wants to slow down the peace process-not stop it-he has shown no indication of honoring the peace plan's commitment to withdraw some Israeli troops from the key West Bank town of Hebron, Arafat's major demand for a resumption of dialogue. Netanyahu has reiterated his opposition to the notion of a Palestinian state and even the Labor-enshrined principle of trading land for peace. He has vowed never to give up Jewish control of the Golan Heights and Jerusalem, and has broken the freeze on new Jewish settlements. In the midst of last week's violence, hardline Infrastructure Minister Ariel Sharon announced that in the next few years settlements will be expanded in the West Bank and Gaza, and the number of Jews on the Golan Heights, near the border with Syria, will rise from 15,000 to 25,000. Talks with Syria, viewed by Netanyahu's predecessors as the next frontier of peace, seem further off than ever. And tensions on the northern border had been heating up as new skirmishes between Hizbollah guerrillas and Israeli troops provoked Israeli air raids. Although Israel had recently increased the number of Palestinian entry permits to Israel from 25,000 to 50,000, the closure of the West Bank and Gaza Strip was still in effect. Israelis had gained some relief from the prickly fear of militant Muslim suicide bombers who took 57 Israeli lives last spring. But to Palestinians, it felt like the bad old days were back.

"Where is this peace? We believed we would have better living conditions," said a 23-year-old named Mustafa in Ramallah. "Instead, we got closures, the worst economic conditions and a new kind of occupation." Across the West Bank, Gaza and Arab-populated East Jerusalem, even among the most moderate Palestinians, the overwhelming emotion was frustration. Nadwa Sarranda, 41, the owner of the Capitol Hotel on East Jerusalem's Salahedin Street, said the "real issues" were not being addressed. "The Israelis are not yet ready to live with us as equals," she said. "Until that happens, we will not agree to being treated as slaves whose only right is to breathe." Sarranda's youngest son, Youssef, 17, has spent his youth at his computer rather than throwing stones at Israeli soldiers, unlike many of his peers. Yet despite his professed pacifism, Youssef believes that violence was necessary to get Israel to follow through on its promises. "This week's events are showing them that we still have the will to fight back," he said. "I think they will rethink their strategy."

Omar Karrain, 45, an architect in Ramallah, said the election of Netanyahu was a big blow for the Palestinians. "We, who had chosen peace, were shocked that our former enemies had chosen to negate our very modest achievement, the Oslo accords, by choosing a government which was against these accords. Since then, everything has been downhill." Karrain believes that Arafat, who was losing popularity because of his authoritarian rule and inability to deliver results, has made tremendous headway as a result of the latest confrontations. To Karrain, Arafat's standing is enhanced because many of the Palestinians killed last week were his policemen. "This was their first test, their first chance to prove they were on the side of their people," he said.

But to many experts, the undisciplined performance of the Palestinian police was precisely where the Palestinian leader lost points. "Arafat was given a golden opportunity by Netanyahu to focus on the 100 days of failure by the Israeli government to engage him in the peace process," said Joseph Alpher, a former director of Tel Aviv University's Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies. "While he may have succeeded in focusing everyone's attention, the fact that his security services went out of control has now placed him on the defensive." Arafat, says Alpher, took a good hand and overplayed it in a way that

poses a major challenge for the future of the Oslo process. "Maybe he wanted a little bit of firing, but I have to assume that he didn't want a situation where police were firing like this on Israeli troops," Alpher said. "It will pose a major problem when Netanyahu finally gets down to negotiations on Hebron."

That may eventually prove to be the case. But Palestinians were displaying more hope for progress than they have since Israeli troops began to withdraw from their towns during the honeymoon period of peace late last year. "We got a raw deal and this is our way of saying we don't accept it," said 24-year-old East Jerusalem carpenter Nasser Aboud. "This kind of showdown is the only language the Israelis understand." Agreed gas-station attendant Amer Abdullat, 24: "When I hear the sound of bullets, I feel we are resisting again. Maybe the next agreement will be better."

Ziad Abu Ziad, a Palestinian parliamentarian who has been involved in Arab-Jewish dialogues since the late 1960s, says there is no doubt his people have returned to a state of war in order to press their cause. "There are two options: a two-state solution with Israelis and Palestinians living side by side, or one binational state in which Arabs and Jews live together," he said. "The latter concept did not work in South Africa and it cannot work here. The sooner the Israelis understand that, the better."

One thing Israelis do understand is fear. "Look," says 19-year-old soldier Maya Levan, "we Israelis, and the Jews in general, have been through much worse trouble than this and we have always come out with our heads up. In the end, everything will work out. The only question is: what's going to happen until it does?" Random interviews with Israelis by Maclean's correspondents suggest that views within Israel are becoming more polarized than they were during the height of the peace euphoria. "There is no place in this country for Arabs, except either in the sea or the world to come," said David Ben Assayag, a 21-year-old Tel Aviv soldier. "There's not going to be peace, there's going to be war. And we'll win it." But a despondent pensioner, who did not want to be named, called recent events "a catastrophe, the end of the world." He, too, accused Netanyahu of destroying the peace in three short months. "The whole world was on our side, now the whole world is against us," he said. Added Tel Aviv 19-year-old Ayelet Kremer: "We have to get out of the territories. We have no business being there. Everybody who voted for Bibi got what they should have expected. Bibi has to resign."

A surprising number of Israelis voiced their unwillingness to serve, should they be called up for reserve duty in the Palestinian autonomous regions-a form of civil disobedience that is still rare in the Jewish state. "My husband hasn't gotten a call-up yet, but if he does, he's not going to answer it," said a 42-year-old woman on a co-operative farm outside Tel Aviv. "He's not going there to defend the religious settlers." Even an orthodox grocer in Tel Aviv said he will refuse to serve in West Bank and Gaza trouble spots, not out of any love for the Palestinians, but rather a distaste for the entire notion of fighting there. "I got a message on my answering machine from my army unit, but I'm not going to pay any attention to it," he said.

Such sentiments point to the extent to which Netanyahu's authority has been diminished by the days of intense fighting. "Netanyahu is in bad shape," said the Hebrew University's Ezrahi, currently a research fellow at the Israel Democracy Institute. "There has been a very serious and drastic erosion in the ability and status of this man. He is not leading. He is constantly engaged in teenage posturing, and this is a serious problem we have with him." Ezrahi said that much like former Likud prime minister Menachem Begin during the 1982 invasion of Lebanon, Netanyahu is being accused by Israelis of leading them towards unnecessary violence. "In Israel, when the bodies of young men lie before us and we cannot find a compelling justification for their sacrifice, governments fall," he said.

That process has not been tested under Israel's new electoral rules. Netanyahu is the first prime minister to be directly elected rather than chosen by MPs. But experts say it would still be possible to topple him. "The main possibility lies in his own party abandoning him and choosing an alternative leader," said Ezrahi. "I don't think it would be easy. But after this week's events, it is an idea that is beginning to work in the minds of people who could make a difference."

It is more likely that Netanyahu will be forced by Arafat's gains to compromise his hardline positions. "Netanyahu has to engage," said strategic analyst Alpher. "He has to negotiate seriously about Hebron, about a further redeployment of Israeli forces in the West Bank, and about the final status of relations between Israel and the Palestinians. He has to accept that this is a two-way track." Alpher also said the prime minister must drastically revise his policy-making methods: "It's quite clear that he did not consult all the relevant security agencies before making his decision on the tunnel. If he just trusts his intuition and ignores realities on the ground, we're going to see more bad decisions."

By week's end, the wheels of world diplomacy were still in high gear attempting to get Netanyahu-and peace-back on track. At first, the U.S. administration had shown an unwillingness to get tough with Netanyahu. Some analysts felt they were fearful of offending Jewish voters so close to the Nov. 5 presidential election. But as the violence escalated, Washington's line stiffened. "The violence must stop," state department spokesman Nicholas Burns said on Friday, addressing both Israelis and Palestinians. "Peace cannot be achieved in the street."

Most analysts inside and outside the Middle East seemed to agree on what it would take to revive the peace: Netanyahu must make a goodwill gesture by closing the controversial tunnel, and be willing to compromise on Hebron. Arafat must again prove that he can control his security forces and quell the extremists among his people. The current internal debates and strategies recall those of the 1980s when the Likud was last in power. As defence minister in a national unity government during the first intifadeh, Yitzhak Rabin tried in vain to crush the unrest with an "iron fist," leading him to make his dramatic peace overtures. "The stick," he said then, "must be accompanied by a carrot," or the Palestinians will have nothing to lose by violence. Explaining his decision to recognize Arafat's Palestine Liberation Organization, he often said: "It is not with our friends but with our enemies that we must sit down and talk."

It has been a long 11 months since Rabin was gunned down by Jewish extremist Yigal Amir at a Tel Aviv demonstration, setting off a downward spiral of linked events. Perhaps it was his absence that emboldened militant Islamic bus bombers to target the peace process last winter. Perhaps their success led Israelis to vote for the hardline Netanyahu last spring. Perhaps Netanyahu's tough approach wounded the pride of Palestinians this past summer. Almost surely, the spirit of hope that Rabin's peace had kindled is gone. And as Israelis and Palestinians mourned their dead last week, they knew that shattered hopes, like glass, are hard to piece together again.

COPYRIGHT 1996 Maclean Hunter (Canada)


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