World

A Deadly Standoff

Violent clashes between Israelis and Palestinians continued in spite of a U.S.-sponsored truce

Eric Silver October 30 2000
World

A Deadly Standoff

Violent clashes between Israelis and Palestinians continued in spite of a U.S.-sponsored truce

Eric Silver October 30 2000

A Deadly Standoff

World

Eric Silver

A group of Arab men from the West Bank village of Beit Furik decided to take advantage of a lull in the violence to harvest olives. But two armed Jews from a nearby settlement intercepted them as they were leaving their village, killing one of them, 28-year-old Farid Nassasreh, in a burst of gunfire. The murder came just as U.S. President Bill Clinton, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak, Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and Egyptian President Flosni Mubarak were meeting in the Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheik in an attempt to end the fighting that has claimed more than 120 lives since Sept. 8. After two days of talks, Barak and Arafat issued a call for peace, but as Nassasrehs murder underscored, extremists on either side could still wreck the deal. “The violence cannot be stopped,” insisted Marwan Barghouthi,

who controls theTanzim, a group of Palestinian militiamen. Within hours of the accord being reached, Barghouthis words proved prophetic as fierce fighting continued in the region. The main violence broke out near Nablus, where five Arabs died in clashes with Israeli soldiers. Witnesses said the Palestinians appeared to be on a suicide mission, knowing they would likely be gunned down as soon as they opened fire. The deadly confrontation at Nablus was part of what Palestinian militant groups had declared as a “day of rage”—protesters were also killed in Ramallah, Jenin, Tulkarm, Qalqilya and the village of Salfit, where a 13-year-old boy was shot in the heart. The Israelis, who had begun to pull back their tanks as part of the Sharm el-Sheik agreement, immediately blamed Arafat, claiming he had failed to control his militiamen. But

Violent clashes between Israelis and Palestinians continued in spite of a U.S.-sponsored truce

chief Palesdnian negotiator Saeb Erekat accused Israel of provoking clashes by sending troops into Palestinian areas. “The Israeli government is doing a good job at killing this peace process,” said Erekat. “It is a very determined effort.”

Initially, it appeared as though the accord would hold. Some observers even speculated that co-operation between the Palestinian and Israeli secret services was behind Israels arrest of eight Arabs suspected of involvement in the brutal murders of two Israeli reserve soldiers who had been beaten and stabbed to death in the Palestinian city of Ramallah. But Israeli officials said the renewed violence was meant to influence public opinion as foreign ministers from the Arab League gathered for a weekend summit meeting in Cairo. The Cairo meeting had been called to denounce Israel over its treatment of the Palestinians. Ail but eight of the 120 people killed in the violence were Arabs, and the ministers were expected to attack Israel for failing to cede occupied Arab land for peace. Iraq was also scheduled to attend the meeting—its first summit since the end of the 1990 Gulf War—and analysts said the militant Arab country could fuel demands for stronger action against Israel. But, said Yemeni Foreign Minister Abdul-Qader Bagammal, “This summit will not be announcing war. It will be about supporting the Palestinian resistance.”

Barak, however, offered the Arab leaders a blunt deadline, claiming he would end the peace process if the unrest persisted in the wake I of the summit. “If things continue this way and the Sharm understandings do not lead to the end of the violence,” said Barak, “then immedi! ately after the summit we will take a time-out in 1 ! order to reassess the peace process.”

For Clinton, meanwhile, last week provided a stark reminder of how the Arab-Israeli conflict could claim other victims. One day after Sharm el-Sheik, he attended memorial services in Norfolk, Va., for 17 sailors killed on the destroyer USS Cole when it was attacked by terrorists on Oct. 12. in the Yemeni port of Aden. The explosion occurred when two men drove a rubber raft loaded with explosives into the side of the Cole. American investigators in Aden said a boy they questioned told them he had been paid by two men to watch their car while they put to sea in a rubber raft. Although two obscure terrorist groups claimed responsibility for the blast, investigators have yet to officially comment. But Clinton told the families of the dead in Norfolk that the killers will be caught. “We will find you,” said the President, “and justice will prevail.”

Last weeks persistent violence further undermined Barak,

who faces tough domestic political challenges when Israels parliament reconvenes after a long summer recess at the end of October. His own Labour Party no longer enjoys a majority in the Israeli legislature; Barak’s coalition fell apart after Israel made several critical concessions at the Camp David peace summit in July, among them a proposal to share administration of Jerusalem, an issue that has divided both Arabs and Jews. With the region in turmoil, Barak had hoped to bring the right-wing Likud opposition and its leader, Ariel Sharon, into a national emergency government. But after the Sharm el-Sheik summit, Sharon refused to join and denounced Barak’s decision to attempt to continue the peace process.

Sharons refusal to join the government came as a relief to members of the Labour coalition who support the peace initiative. They blame Sharon for starting the latest conflict when violent protests followed his Sept. 28 visit to an ancient site in Jerusalem sacred to both Muslims and Jews. Justice Minister Yossi Beilin, an architect of the 1993 Oslo peace accord that launched the peace process, scorned the invitation

to Sharon, saying it was “like recruiting an arsonist into the fire brigade.” But if Barak suspends the peace process, it again opens the door for co-operation with Sharon. Now, if the current violence can be curbed, the most optimistic short-term scenario is that Israeli and Palestinian officials will gradually begin to meet again until their leaders are ready to negotiate in earnest. But hopes for a comprehensive peace agreement have faded. Even the most ardent Israeli peace campaigners are now advocating further interim agreements— phased withdrawals from the occupied territories and a gradual restoration of dialogue. It is widely acknowledged that the gap between the the two sides on the gut issue of Jerusalem cannot be bridged, at least for the foreseeable future. Until it is, there will be no lasting peace in the Middle East. And last week, even a temporary peace proved to be elusive. E3