Middle East

DREAMS OF PEACE

The thaw may only be temporary, but the possibility of finding a way out this grinding conflict is raising hopes.

JONATHON GATEHOUSE February 7 2005
Middle East

DREAMS OF PEACE

The thaw may only be temporary, but the possibility of finding a way out this grinding conflict is raising hopes.

JONATHON GATEHOUSE February 7 2005

DREAMS OF PEACE

The thaw may only be temporary, but the possibility of finding a way outthis grinding conflict is raising hopes. JONATHON GATEHOUSE reports.

Middle East

JONATHON GATEHOUSE

A COUPLE ARE dressed in track pants and sweaters, one is wearing flip-flops, but the half-dozen Palestinian security men loitering around the campfire at the edge of the Gaza Strip all have Kalashnikovs dangling from their shoulders. That they are there at all is progress. That they are standing with their backs to the Israeli border—and occasionally step away from the light and warmth to scan the garbage-strewn fields around them—is cause

for optimism. In mid-January, three militants made their way past this checkpoint and attacked the Kami crossing, less than a kilometre away, with bombs and gunfire, killing six Israelis and wounding five. On this night, two weeks later, the Palestinian commander is boasting of how, just a few hours before, his men foiled an attempt by Hamas members to launch a rocket across the border. “We had a big argument and they went home,” says the captain. “We used very strong words and told them they can’t do this anymore.”

If not exactly a crackdown, the efforts of Mahmoud Abbas, the new Palestinian president, to prod militants toward an official ceasefire appear to be gathering momentum. Since taking office on Jan. 15, the 69-year-old successor to Yasser Arafat has moved rapidly, brokering deals with the leadership of Hamas, Islamic Jihad, and the military wing of his own Fatah party, and dispatching thousands of security forces and police to restore order to Gaza. A government edict has been issued banning “civilians” from carrying weapons, confrontations between the warring sides have decreased dramatically, and long-severed security links between the Palestinian Authority and their Israeli counterparts are being re-established. There is talk of reciprocal “goodwill” gestures like an easing of checkpoints, and a pullback of Israel De-

The new PA is taking steps such as demolishing illegal restaurants (right)

fense Forces from the West Bank. A faceto-face meeting between Abbas, popularly known as Abu Mazen, and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon could come as soon as next week. And there are increasing hopes that an end to the 4V2-year-old intifada and a rejuvenation of the peace process may suddenly be more than a distant dream.

Whether it is a temporary thaw or a global warming of relations, the possibility of finding a way out of a grinding conflict seems to have intoxicated some previously implacable foes. “The conditions have been created that will enable us and the Palestinians to reach a historic breakthrough in our relations,” Sharon, usually a reliable pessimist, pronounced last week. In Gaza, Hamas— the strip’s most powerful militant group—is busily turning its focus to domestic politics (it won control of seven of 10 local councils in Gaza’s first-ever municipal elections) and hinting at a monumental change of heart.

Pausing between television appearances and chats on his incessantly ringing cellphones—one plays Scotland the Brave, the other We Wish You a Merry Christmas— Mushir al-Masri, the group’s spokesman, told Maclean’s that Hamas might now be willing to co-exist with Israel provided it returns to its pre-1967 borders. “We would not prevent such a thing from happening,” he said, smiling. However, the group has a

laundry list of demands that al-Masri says must be met before such a recognition or even a ceasefire, including the release of detainees, the return of the corpses of its “martyrs,” and most importantly, a promise not to assassinate any more of its leaders. “We say the resistance has something to do with the occupation,” says al-Masri. “We can’t sit on

our hands when the Israelis attack us.”

But the decision of whether to keep on fighting may no longer be solely up to the militants. Abbas, who won election by promising not only to bring an end to the political violence, but to halt rampant crime and corruption in Gaza and the West Bank, is riding a wave of popularity. Outside al-Masri’s

office, there was a noisy demonstration taking place, not against the Israelis or in support of one of the factions, but in protest over a recent murder. The victim’s family was demanding that Abbas order the police to bring charges against the alleged killer, the scion of a prominent Gaza family. “We used to speak of these things, but only behind

closed doors,” one of the bystanders said.

The day before, the president won kudos for having local authorities move in and demolish a row of beachside restaurants and clubs that had been illegally built on public land over the past four years. Most were owned by people with personal ties to Arafat and his regime. Abbas has also told Palestinian state television to start independently reporting the news, and stop the type of lavish praise it routinely heaped on every action taken by Arafat or his government.

Still, despite public support and the reappearance of policemen in their distinctive blue camouflage uniforms on almost every street corner in the strip, ensuring both internal and external security will be an epic political task. The various militant groups are heavily armed and have no coherent central leadership. And over the past 4V2 years, the lines between the fighters and the dozen PA agencies charged with keeping the peace have become mightily blurred. Behind the locked doors of his office at central police headquarters, Musa Abdel Nabi, chief inspector of the crime department, says he is hoping co-operation wins out over confrontation. “We don’t want a civil war,” he says. “We want these movements to peacefully give up their weapons, to convince them that this is right.” Abdel Nabi, a Danny DeVito look-alike with a self-proclaimed “gift” for determining visitors’ character by their handwriting (according to him, I am lucky to be at liberty), admits to having mixed sympathies. A former recruiter for Fatah, he spent a decade and a half in an Israeli jail. “I can’t say ‘thank you’ because they took 15 years of my life,” he says. “But I’m not against peace.”

The transition from warrior to peacemaker will be no more comfortable—or less

tricky—for Ariel Sharon. After years of arguing that Arafat was the roadblock to peace, he suddenly finds himself facing the type of Palestinian counterpart that he always maintained didn’t exist—a moderate who seemingly has both the desire and the clout to control the militant groups. Forced to form a new coalition with the Labour Party in early January to save his floundering government, Sharon must now pay heed to the peace-hungry left and the rapidly rising expectations of the Israeli public.

Yossi Beilin, Israel’s former justice minister who, along with Abbas, was one of the architects of the Oslo peace process, characterizes his friend’s election to the PA presidency as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. “That he became leader of the Palestinians is amazing,” says Beilin, now the leader of the left-wing Yahad Party-SDI. “It’s the closest thing to a revolution you can imagine. He is a man of his word.” Yet Beilin says he doubts the Sharon government—which has been aggressively building a security barrier and pursuing a plan of unilateral disengagement—is sincerely interested in a permanent solution to the Palestinian problem. “I think the prime minister would like to go to the second stage of the road map for peace [a provisional Palestinian state] and stay there,” he says. “Abu Mazen will want to go to the third stage [the permanent setting of borders and settling of the question of Jerusalem].

I can see a potential collision.”

Government officials are trying to keep a lid on expectations, cautioning that the way forward will be long and bumpy. “Our concern about a ceasefire is that it could just become a time out for these terrorist groups | to replenish stocks, train fighters and recruit suicide bombers,” says Marc Regev, a Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman. The j crowded Jerusalem café that he has chosen for the interview was the scene of a suicide bombing in September 2003 that killed seven people and wounded 50. “Things are very fragile,” says Regev. “You have a big terrorist attack like the one here and everything will be thrown out of balance. Everybody knows Abu Mazen can’t prevent every attack, but the question will be, is he doing everything he can?”

The government is also anxiously looking ahead to its plans to abandon Gaza’s 21 Jewish settlements, perhaps as early as this July. The controversial pullout plan, hatched as part of Sharon’s unilateral disengagement

strategy, is fiercely opposed by the country’s religious right. That is why Sharon’s Likud party now finds itself in an uncomfortable coalition with Labour. And while Israeli peaceniks and Palestinians approve of the forced evacuation, settlers, who number only 8,500 in Gaza, but 250,000 in total, are on the edge of revolt. Many fear the plan is just the beginning, and that many more settlements—the bulk of the 150 communities

OFFICIALS are

trying to keep a lid on expectations, saying the way forward will be long and bumpy

are in the West Bank and Golan Heights— will be on the table if negotiations resume.

Shaul Goldstein, the mayor of the Gush Etzion settlement near Bethlehem and vicepresident of the national Yesha Settlers Council, doesn’t mince words about Sharon’s plan. “We were raped by the Oslo Accords and now we are being raped again,” he says. Violent resistance, though condemned by his organization, is all but inevitable. “Is everyone listening to us? No. Will there be some lunatics? Yes.” Goldstein stands at the window of his office in a neat building on a high West Bank hilltop. “For us this is Jewish

land. It is marked in stone,” he says. “Every morning, I drive to work on the same route that Isaac and Abraham walked. David was born here. He fought Goliath down the hill. If we don’t belong here, what claim do we have to Haifa or Tel Aviv?”

On the crowded, filthy streets of the Jabalya refugee camp in Gaza, the stronghold of Hamas and Islamic Jihad, it’s also not difficult to find people who hold a dim vision of the future. Peace would be nice, says Sabah, a young mother of five, but not at any price. “We must have our dignity,” she says. Her friend Khadija, who also has five young children, agrees. “No concessions can be made,” she says. “Jerusalem is our right.” These days, except for the fortunate few like foreign diplomats and journalists, crossing from Gaza to Israel is impossible. Layer upon layer of barriers have been added to the main Erez border crossing in response to each attack. The once open road is now an enclosed maze of concrete walls, razor wire, conning towers and electronic gates. Walking out of Palestinian darkness into the Israeli klieg lights, I encounter about a dozen young men laughing and jumping, giddily running toward the distant buildings of Gaza City. They are wearing matching grey sweatsuits and no shoes—detainees, the first wave of an as yet unacknowledged clearing of Israeli jails. The goodwill is now flowing in both directions. The question is how long it will last, and how far it will go. fl]

jonathon.gatehouse@macleans.rogers.com