Israel, Palestinians Slouch Toward Summit
RAMALLAH, WEST BANK and JERUSALEM
Mutual defiance between Israeli and Palestinian leaders is prolonging the crisis that has shaken the Mideast peace process, as both sides are now pressing for political advantage after nearly a week of lethal clashes.
Although the violence began to ease over the weekend at dozens of flash points - where battles between Palestinian demonstrators and Israeli soldiers left nearly 70 dead and hundreds wounded - Israel's actions yesterday may further infuriate Palestinians. Most notably, Israel reopened the tourist tunnel in Jerusalem that last week triggered the violence.
Despite angry rhetoric from both sides, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat bowed to American and international pressure and agreed to meet early this week in Washington. That it took five days for the two men to decide to meet highlights the political stakes involved and the gains each hopes to win.
Before Israel moved secretly last week to open the disputed tunnel - close to one of Islam's holiest sites - Israeli intelligence analysts had warned it would provoke bloodshed at a time of extreme tension between Arab and Jew, but few predicted Palestinian discontent was ready to burn so ferociously.
At the peak of the fighting on Thursday, Palestinian police armed under a self-rule agreement engaged Israeli forces in sustained gun battles. The Israelis deployed tanks and helicopters for the first time since 1967 to quell the unrest.
Yesterday, the prime minister's office suggested that disarming the Palestinian police is an option. Israel also increased its military deployments to seal off and control Palestinian towns in the West Bank. Military officials say that during "Operation Field of Thorns" they will "use any means we have to" to defend Israeli lives.
The peace process - begun five years ago under US auspices and stalled since the election last May of hard-line Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu - is now described in the past tense.
The view from the trenches of the renewed conflict is one of open, from-the-gut hostility toward what Palestinians see as an uncompromising Israeli leader whose wish is to deprive them of their rights and their land.
The killing of three Palestinian protesters outside Al Aqsa mosque after Friday prayers - the first gunshots to pierce the shrine since 17 rioting Palestinians were killed by Israelis in 1990 - is reverberating throughout the Islamic world.
In the wake of the killings, a Palestinian merchant cracked open the door of his shop: "The previous government was trying for peace, and now peace is gone with the wind," he said, blowing into his hand. "They want Palestinians to give them peace without giving us anything in return."
Mr. Netanyahu kept to his tough stance late Saturday, perhaps emboldened by a US decision to abstain from an otherwise unanimous United Nations Security Council vote condemning Israeli actions and demanding closure of the tunnel. His office has made clear that any compromise with Mr. Arafat will only yield more conflict.
The tunnel, Netanyahu declared, "is open. It will stay open. It will always stay open."
Netanyahu blamed the Palestinian leader and said he "must abandon the insane idea that peace must be negotiated through the tactics of war."
Arafat has also taken a tough line in saying he would delay the meeting with Netanyahu until Israel accepts the formula agreed to in 1993 peace accords. His moves appear designed to maximize international pressure on Israel and to hold out for large concessions.
Arafat has called the recent surge of fighting a "massacre" by Israel.
And orders of restraint to the armed Palestinian police were not manifest until Saturday. Helmeted riot police with plastic shields and batons in Ramallah - the site of the worst clashes - prevented protesters from coming within firing range of Israeli checkpoints.
A hoarse Palestinian official used a police megaphone to convince hundreds of young men to disperse: "It is not worth being killed today," he said. "Have respect for the martyrs and don't make trouble."
The new orders coincided with appeals by Arafat's official radio service for an end to the bloodshed and to "open a new page."
Ali Jarbawi, a professor of political science at Bir Zeit University, said that the Palestinian violence indicated that there are few alternatives left for them.
"Arafat is trying to gain the most out of this," he says. "He is not going to meet with Netanyahu just to calm the situation. All Arafat has to do is sit back and relax ... and let the pressure cooker continue to boil."
But Israeli officials have confirmed their tough stance: "If anybody tries to deliver a political reward for Arafat's decision to incite his people to violence, this will destroy the peace process," an anonymous official in the prime minister's office said in the Jerusalem Post.
"If Arafat succeeds in obtaining such a reward now, he will do it every 10 days."
The attitude along the "front lines" in the West Bank and Gaza is that, in the words of one man in Ramallah with his hands full of stones meant for Israeli targets, "We Palestinians are always treated like dogs - and now they are doing this to us again."
As the conflict raged on the ridge above, he dropped down into the dust behind a boulder as Israeli soldiers fired a volley of rubber and live bullets.
The skirmish Friday grew out of the funeral for a boy killed Thursday and mirrors scores of similar conflicts.
As the corpse was passed out of the mosque - worn hands clutching the wooden bier, the young body wrapped in a Palestinian flag - men began to chant a war cry.
Later, the crowd charged an Israeli checkpoint on the outskirts of town. Some fell to live rounds. Others moved to drag the wounded away.
The action shifted to a nearby hillside, where men and women - many dressed like Americans - unleashed a barrage of stones crying "Alahu Akbar" (God is great). Women wore earrings and jewelry; men were in their good shirts.
Supply lines were set up to provide buckets full of stones and gas and bottles for Molotov cocktails.
The line in reverse carried back the wounded, who numbered about 25 in three hours.
Splashes of blood spattered the stony hillside.
"They should be killed, those Israelis!" shouted the man who dove for cover behind the boulder, his stone-throwing arm wrapped by a tightly knotted Palestinian flag around his elbow.
"They never let us live."