World

Road to nowhere?

Palestinians see hope dimming for a real peace

STEPHANIE NOLEN April 14 1997
World

Road to nowhere?

Palestinians see hope dimming for a real peace

STEPHANIE NOLEN April 14 1997

Road to nowhere?

Palestinians see hope dimming for a real peace

World

Hatem came prepared. Armed with a gas mask, a pair of yellow gardening gloves and a powerful throwing arm, he took the lead in a group of Palestinian youths hurling stones at Israeli soldiers in

Bethlehem last week. With his deluxe equipment, 17-year-old Hatem was in charge of snatching up tear gas canisters and lobbing them back over the barbed wire at the Israelis. “Netanyahu is crazy,” he shouted. “If he wants war, we’re ready. If he wants peace, we’re ready for that too. And if he builds more settlements there will be more explosions.” From Hebron to Ramallah, the detritus of demonstrations litters the roads: stones, tear gas canisters, the occasional bullet casing. Even after the soldiers and the stone throwers go home, the litter remains to crunch under car tires—a reminder of the turbulent days of the Palestinians’ 1987-1993 intifadeh. Palestinian hospitals reported that at least 500 people were injured in the past two weeks by tear gas, rubber bullets and live ammunition. Two young men died. It is a rough time for the Oslo peace process—and the residue of riots reveals only part of an escalating challenge.

In Gaza on April 1, two Palestinians blew themselves up in botched suicide bombings aimed at Israeli settlements. The next day, a petrol bomb injured more than a dozen Israeli soldiers in a bus near Ramallah. Israel reinforced its troops near the now-autonomous West Bank cities with tanks and armored personnel carriers. Inside Israel, soldiers and police guarded bus stops and shopping malls as the country braced for more bombings. Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, embattled and isolated, spoke of “a dire crisis.”

Crisis indeed. Since work started on a new Jewish settlement south of Jerusalem, Israeli-Palestinian relations have hit their lowest point since 1992. Arafat and Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu are not speaking; their teams of negotiators are not negotiating. The only common word is “crisis.” With stone throwings a daily event and bombings increasingly common, many on both sides say the peace process is near collapse. As Netanyahu prepared for a visit to Washington early this week, the United States was pressuring both sides to patch things up and start talking again. And they probably will—because like it or not, this peace process is the only game in town. “There are no other options,” says Palestinian political analyst Ghassan Khatib. But Palestinians increasingly question whether what is left of the process is leading anywhere.

The protests erupted when Israel broke ground on the longplanned settlement at Har Homa, between Jerusalem and Bethlehem, on March 18. Since then, the government has said that other

West Bank settlements will continue to expand and new roads will be built on Arab land. Palestinians argue that settlement expansion is illegal under the terms of the 1993 Oslo peace deal between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization. And they know that as the Israeli population grows in the West Bank and settler roads slice through the land, their dream of sovereignty will recede ever further. But only the United States has the power to force an end to settlement building, and despite unanimous protests from the rest of the world, Washington does not seem ready to exert that kind of pressure. So Palestinians can do little else but protest.

The Arab world, though, is increasingly incensed, and that is threatening one of the major achievements for Israel over the past three years: better relations with its neighbors. Last week, the Arab League voted in favor of stopping all multilateral talks involving Israel, freezing co-operation and contacts, and renewing its old economic boycott. If the decision is enforced—and the language used was unprecedentedly strong, although it was nonbinding—Israel would be shoved back to the regional isolation of pre-Oslo days.

That is not crippling, but it is lonely. The idea of getting along with their neighbors is important to Israelis, and the local press has sharply criticized Netanyahu for damaging this most valuable of gains from the peace process. “It’s a matter of having the fear of a war dragged up again, when only a few weeks ago we could think about going on vacations to some of these countries,” said Jeana

Cahn, a Tel Aviv secretary, about the boycott.

Many Palestinians, as well as Israeli critics, accuse Netanyahu of deliberately provoking the crisis in order to scuttle a peace process he had long opposed. “This deterioration must be deliberate—otherwise he’s so stupid it’s impossible to believe,” says Yael Dayan, an opposition Labour Party MP and daughter of late defence minister Moshe Dayan. Netanyahu insists he is willing to continue talking if Arafat can guarantee security. He has also suggested jumping directly to a Camp David-style summit to determine the Palestinians’ final status. Yet he made his political name—and won election— with repeated vows that he would never allow a Palestinian state or relinquish any control over east Jerusalem, which the Palestinians claim as their capital.

Palestinians say both are necessary for

any sort of permanent solution. By continually insisting that he will concede on neither, Netanyahu may push Palestinians past a point Arafat can control.

Since a March 21 suicide bombing in Tel Aviv that killed four, Israel has kept up a chorus of demands that the PLO leader “crack down on terror.” That may not be as easy as it sounds. After a wave of suicide attacks last winter, Arafat jailed at least 2,000 supporters of militant Islamist groups, and Hamas leader Ghazi Ahmed ac-

knowledges the organization was “effectively crippled.” The Tel Aviv bombing appears to have been the work not of his movement but of a renegade member or a breakaway cell. And the militant organizations quickly washed their hands of the botched bombing attempts in Gaza last week. While the bombers were members of the smaller Islamic Jihad, its political leaders in Gaza—normally quick to claim even failed attacks—said they “knew absolutely nothing” about them.

Israel and the United States can demand that Arafat crush the militants, but he may not be able to do much about individuals who decide to vent their outrage with explosives. “It takes only one individual or a small group,” explains Ziad Abu Amr, an expert on Islamist movements. “The knowledge and the expertise is there—all you need is one volunteer.” Israeli security chiefs are keen to avoid providing an obvious spark. Last week, they convinced the government to drop a longstanding demand for the extradition of Hamas political leader Musa Abu Marzouq from the United States, where he has lived since 1982. Although officials blame him for masterminding a wave of earlier killings, they feared that his extradition would set off more West Bank violence.

The Palestinian Legislative Council, the Palestinian opposition parties and even Arafat’s own Fatah organization have called on him to stop negotiations with Israel. Meanwhile, his police officers have the job of keeping Palestinian protesters in check and away from their Israeli targets. “It’s very hard to feel proud,” one young officer said in Hebron last week, grabbing the arms of a would-be stone thrower. “During the intifadeh I threw stones myself, but now I do Israel’s police work.” His frustration is echoed

across the West Bank and Gaza. Arafat may still have control over the street, but it will not last forever—especially if he cannot show his people some sort of trade-off for the settlements that grow before their eyes.

The most obvious route out of the current impasse is a U.S.-brokered deal, like the January Hebron accord, which led to a partial Israeli withdrawal from that city. “An American initiative is the only thing that will save Oslo,” says Martin Kramer, a political scientist at Tel Aviv University. “Only the Americans can get them talking, can armtwist Netanyahu, can give the Palestinians some guarantees.” But Khatib isn’t so sure. Palestinians, he says, fear that even if talks resume—and both sides agree they probably soon will—the exercise will be futile. There will be another deal, more negotiations—and then, if Netanyahu stays in character, another new Jewish settlement, more riots, and the cycle begins again.

Some Israelis say the solution may lie in a “national unity government”—a coalition with the dovish Labour Party that started the Oslo process. Netanyahu has remained open to the idea, but would it be enough? “The only thing that will stop the cycle is for Israel

to implement what it has already agreed to and not done, and to stop expanding settlements,” says Khatib. “Until that happens, until the causes of this crisis are addressed, nothing is going to change.” Young Hatem, who has made an art of hurling the stones of Palestinian protest, says he “throws rocks for peace.” In Bethlehem last week, peace was hard to spot. But there were a lot more stones.

STEPHANIE NOLEN

in Jerusalem