Talks and tension

NOMI MORRIS October 14 1996

Talks and tension

NOMI MORRIS October 14 1996

Talks and tension


In the hotly contested West Bank town of Hebron last week, the empty streets felt as ominous as they were quiet. Orthodox Jewish children played in a few roads, but a 20-hour curfew confined 150,000 Palestinians to their homes. Only between 5 and 9 a.m. were they allowed to go out for supplies. While the town’s 450 Jewish settlers were celebrating the fall festival of Sukkoth, most of the Palestinians indoors were seething over the meagre results of an emergency summit in Washington. Eyman Sa’id, a 27-year-old who normally sells spices in the Hebron street market, was deeply pessimistic. “Our situation is not going to get any better,” he said from the doorway of his home. “The talks won’t be good for us, only for Israel.” In Hebron and throughout the West Bank and Gaza Strip, the stakes—and the tension—were rising ahead of new, summit-agreed negotiations set to begin on Sunday.

As the week wore on, both sides were poised for any flare-up that could reignite the bloodshed that took the lives of 58 Arabs and 15 Israeli soldiers. Tanks and sharpshooters were deployed around key towns after Israel’s defence minister promised to “crush” any renewed protest. And yet by the weekend, as Palestin-

ian and Israeli negotiators reluctantly prepared to meet again at the Erez checkpoint on the Israel-Gaza border, the calm was holding.

After Friday prayers, the mufti of Jerusalem and other Muslim clerics quelled a protest at the highly charged Al Aqsa Mosque complex by about 500 youths who heeded calls by the Islamic fundamentalist group Hamas for “total confrontation” with the Israelis. Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, meanwhile, ordered some troops to begin pulling back from sites in the autonomous areas and relaxed curfews and travel restrictions. And he made a special appeal to Palestinians in an interview with Israel Television’s Arabic service. “I ask you, don’t go into mourning,” Netanyahu said. “Don’t lose hope. This is an opportunity for a fresh start.”

The focus of the new talks is Hebron. Under a 1995 Israeli-Palestinian accord, the troops were to leave last March, but a wave of suicide bombings that killed 57 Israelis delayed the plan. Netanyahu has said that security concerns are still too great to carry it out. But as the last West Bank city still under occupation, Hebron is the key issue for Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. “We insist they implement accurately and honestly what has been agreed

Netanyahu and Arafat reluctantly agree to go back to the table

upon,” Arafat said after the Washington summit.

Hebron’s Palestinians and Israelis have not been more estranged since February, 1994, when Jewish settler Baruch Goldstein gunned down 29 Muslims in the Abraham Mosque, which the Jews revere as the Tomb of the Patriarchs. Outside the shrine a huge banner now proclaims: “Hebron for our ancestors, for our children, forever!” The only thing that unites the two embattled communities is skepticism about the chances of resolving the problem. “Hebron is the test for the Israeli government,” said Mayor Mustafa Natsheh last week. “Do they want to move forward? Or do they want to block the way? If there is no progress soon, this area will return to violence.”

Already Hebron seems to have sunk back into the familiar pattern of the intifadeh, the six-year Palestinian uprising that ended with the signing of the Oslo peace plan in 1993. On Wednesday, two teenage cousins walked into Mayor Natsheh’s office to lodge a complaint against Israeli border po|=i lice for detaining them for eight hours. “They took l| us to a checkpoint near the Abraham Mosque,” |§ said Abed Raouf Awewi, 14, “and started beat-

ing and searching us. ^ We said we had done nothing, but they clubbed us in the genitals.” His 16-year-old cousin, Bahaja, said a border policeman had urinated into a Coca-Cola bottle and ordered them to drink it: ‘When we refused, they beat us again until we had to drink.” Israeli authorities were investigating.

Mayor Natsheh blames economic deprivation as well as the continued occupation for the frustration of local residents. “We are in a disastrous situation,” he says. “Our people are suffering. They can’t go to work, they’re short of food. Their children can’t go to school.” Bassam Abu Mazar, a 43-year-old postal worker who hasn’t been paid for two months, is struggling to feed his eight children: “We stock up when things look bad. There’s grocer up the road who gives us credit. Mostly, we eat rice and lentils.”

Across town, the Jewish settlers’ spokesman, Noam Arnon, said Netanyahu would not dare to take the army out of Hebron. “After last week’s firefights, everyone knows they are murderers, killers,” he said of the Palestinian police. “Netanyahu won’t do it.” And if he did? “If we have to, we’ll defend ourselves.”

The Israeli government played down American suggestions that 45 days was the approximate time frame for redeploying the Hebron troops. All

such issues were clearly still on the table: Netanyahu did not even make a symbolic gesture of closing the new exit to a tourist tunnel in Jerusalem that was the trigger for the downward spiral of events. “One thing is very clear: we are not out of the woods,” said U.S. Middle East co-ordinator Dennis Ross after the Washington meeting.

Rarely in the history of Middle East diplomacy had there been such an improvised summit with such high stakes. Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, normally the key regional middleman, refused to attend, reportedly furious with Israeli attitudes. Relations were so strained between Arafat and Netanyahu that the two would not agree to meet unless U.S. President Bill Clinton himself was there. Early on came another risky move: after a lunch in the White House library, Clinton and Jordan’s King Hussein, the fourth summiteer, excused themselves and left Arafat and Netanyahu alone with their interpreters for three hours. Then, their aides stayed up arguing until 4 a.m., making no headway. Arafat was ready to leave the summit by the middle of Wednesday. Only when a still-secret item was put on the table did he agree to stay.

In the end, their faces told the tale. At a closing news conference, Arafat and Netanyahu each stared forward with angry glares. By agreement, neither took the podium, for fear a misplaced word or phrase might make things even worse. It was left to Clinton to put the best face on the outcome: that at least the two sides were talking. “When we compare where we are today with where we were a week ago, are we in better shape? Yes,” Clinton declared. But if the results seemed slim, they did no harm to his standing in the presidential election campaign; polls still showed him up to 14 points ahead of Republican challenger Bob Dole.

The summit had a greater political impact on the other two key participants. Netanyahu, who smiled and pumped Arafat’s hand for the cameras, returned to a hero’s welcome in Israel from rightists giddy with a diplomatic “victory” after four years in the shadows. But in the Arab world the session was viewed as a fiasco. Arafat did not appear at a scheduled news conference in Washington, and his top aides made it clear they felt they had been had. Before going home, he headed to Morocco and Tunisia, his popularity ebbing once again. “Arafat sold us all,” said Urn Wissam, a 47-year-old Palestinian housewife in Beirut’s Mar Elias refugee camp. “He does not represent us any more and we do not care about his negotiations with the Israelis.” Still, Palestinians on Arafat’s turf seemed to be extending his grace period until the new talks.

Netanyahu was striving to project a new rapport with Arafat in advance of the Erez talks—perhaps in response to a new poll showing that 79 per cent of Israelis were worried about the security situation. Palestinians had yet to be convinced of his sincerity, especially since Netanyahu wants to amend the security formula already set for Hebron. “Once you sign an agreement, you honor it,” said Arafat’s minister for higher education, Hanan Ashrawi. “Netanyahu is trying to impose his own version. This is a very dangerous precedent. ’’Just how dangerous will become clear in the days ahead.

NOMI MORRIS with ANDREW PHILLIPS in Washington and ERIC SILVER in Hebron