|Al-Ahram Weekly On-line
12 - 18 April 2001
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Cease-fire or surrender?Egypt, Jordan and the Palestinian Authority are all seeking an honourable exit from the fighting in the occupied territories. Israel is seeking victory. Graham Usher reports from Jerusalem
Last week oases of diplomacy could be glimpsed amid the blood, grief and smoke of the Intifada. On 1 April Ariel Sharon dispatched his son Omri and long-time Israeli troubleshooter Yossi Ginossar to meet "secretly" with Yasser Arafat in Ramallah. Four days later, Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres met Palestinian Authority (PA) negotiators Nabil Shaath and Saeb Erekat in Athens, in a rendezvous arranged by the European Union. And that night the long dormant Israeli-Palestinian Security Committee convened in Israel at the direct urging of US Secretary of State Colin Powell and with a Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) "non-participant" official in attendance.
Israeli border police arrested a Palestinian child protestor in Jerusalem's Old City after clashes broke out following Friday Muslim prayers
The common aim of these labours, it is agreed, is to bring to an end more than six months of attrition in the occupied territories that has claimed the lives of nearly 400 Palestinians, 64 Israeli Jews and caused injury, damage and trauma to tens of thousands more. But there is precious little other agreement.
According to Palestinian sources, Arafat has reluctantly signed on to one possible exit from the stalemate, put together by Egypt and Jordan in the wings of the Amman Arab summit in March and aired by President Hosni Mubarak during his meetings with US officials in Washington last week. The Americans are "studying" the proposal, which enjoys the quiet backing of several EU countries. It boils down to a cease-fire based on the Sharm Al-Sheikh "understandings" agreed to but never implemented by Israel and the PA last October.
The Egyptian-Jordanian proposal requires Israel to withdraw its military forces from Palestinian civilian areas, lift its territorial siege of the West Bank and Gaza and transfer the $54 million it owes the PA in tax revenue. Israel would also refrain from its recently revived penchant for assassinating Palestinian leaders in PA-controlled territories. In return, the PA would work to quell Palestinian armed resistance and renew security cooperation with the Israeli army.
Concurrently, negotiations would resume on the contentious final status issues, including Jerusalem, and on outstanding interim commitments, including Israel's long promised but never implemented third West Bank redeployment. The Palestinians are also insisting that any return to talks be accompanied by a freeze on Israeli settlement activity in the occupied territories, including the 6,130 housing units currently under construction.
On paper it looks like a reasonable package. It provides enough face-saving for both Sharon and Arafat to return to the table without either having to cross his vaunted red lines, whether on Jerusalem or the settlements. And if it would bring even a temporary quiet, the plan would restore a sense of personal security to ordinary Israelis and actual security and respite to Palestinians, who for the last six months have lived as a community at war.
The only snag in the plan is Israel's rejection of it. While his son was on his way to Ramallah, Ariel Sharon slammed the Egyptian-Jordanian proposal as little more than a ruse to "get Israel to negotiate under fire." Peres said much the same thing, though in typically more mellifluous tones. The Egyptian-Jordanian initiative "was not a formal proposal and, therefore, there is no reason to consider it," Peres told the Israeli cabinet on 1 April. "If it were a formal proposal, we would have had to formally reject it."
In its stead, Peres went to Athens with Sharon's counter-proposal, which would require an immediate end to Palestinian "violence and terror" in return for an "alleviation" of Israel's closure policies in the occupied territories. Then, and only then, would negotiations resume, but "without preconditions."
A deal along these lines would certainly earn Sharon plaudits from his religious and right-wing constituencies, since it would prove that Israeli aggression pays. For Palestinians, of course, it would mean an unconditional surrender, and one, they insist, Arafat is neither able nor willing to give.
But surrender appears to be what Sharon is after. While Peres was talking to his Palestinian counterparts in Athens, Israeli army bulldozers tore down 12 Palestinian homes in the West Bank, supposedly because they lacked licences. A few hours after Israeli, US and PA security heads met in an effort to restore "calm" in the West Bank and Gaza, a rigged telephone booth blew away Islamic Jihad leader Iyad Hardan in Jenin.
With attention diverted by these two outrages, the Israeli government announced plans to build 708 housing units in the Maale Adumim and Alfe Menashe settlements in the West Bank. The decision stirred even the saintly patience of the US government, which rebuked Israel for "further inflaming an already volatile situation in the region."
Finally, pouring salt into open wounds, Israeli soldiers fired on the Palestinian security chiefs' convoy as it returned to Gaza from Israel, leaving three of their bodyguards injured. The army said it was responding to shots fired from the PA cars. Mohamed Dahlan, PA head of preventive security in Gaza, called the attack a premeditated and unprovoked ambush. In reprisal, Palestinian guerrillas fired mortars on Jewish settlements within Gaza and beyond. And in the inevitable escalation, Israeli helicopter gunships rocketed PA security bases, leaving seven Palestinians wounded, most of them civilians.
It is a cycle that is unlikely to stop, says Dahlan, and for one basic reason. "The Israelis want an agreement where we implement what is good for them and they completely disregard what is good for us. "And that," he insists, "will never happen."
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