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Sunday, July 24, 2005

End of the 'calm' for Israel, Palestinians

LONDON -- Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas called for a "period of calm" when he took over the late Yasser Arafat's job in January, and for a while some people allowed themselves to believe that peace was within reach. But that delusion depended on the belief that Arafat had been the main obstacle to a permanent peace settlement, and it is now melting in the summer sun.

"This calm is dissolving," said Gen. Dan Halutz, the Israeli military's chief of staff, on July 15.

Mushir al-Masri, a spokesman for the radical Hamas movement, which rejects a permanent peace deal with Israel, sort of agreed: "The calm is blowing away in the wind, and the Zionist enemy is responsible for that."

The truth is that neither Halutz's political superiors nor al-Masri's expected the calm to last.

On July 12 a suicide bomber from Islamic Jihad (which never agreed to the ceasefire) killed five Israelis in the town of Netanya. Israeli troops then killed two Palestinians in Tulkarem the following night. On July 14 another Palestinian was shot dead as he tried to escape Israeli forces in Nablus. That night, a shower of homemade Qassem rockets fired from Gaza by Hamas militants killed one Israeli woman in Nativ Haasara.

In an attempt to reassert control over the Gaza Strip, Palestinian police under Mahmoud Abbas' orders opened fire on a Hamas vehicle late on July 14, wounding five Hamas fighters. The response was an attack on a police post by dozens of Hamas gunmen who burned two police cruisers.

Another clash in Gaza City early July 15 left two civilian bystanders dead, a police station and more vehicles burned out, and Hamas fighters in control of the streets. Later that day, Israel helicopters killed seven Hamas militants and wounded five civilians in two rocket attacks.

It was a pattern all too familiar from the intifada of 2001-2004, but with the added complication that the Palestinians themselves were now on the brink of a civil war. By the weekend, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice had announced an unscheduled visit to the area in an attempt to save the ceasefire, but neither side has much incentive to help her out.

Israel would prefer that the Palestinians to remain quiet, of course, but Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's strategy does not aim at serious negotiations with them. He is instead going for an imposed peace that leaves all the main Jewish settlement blocks in the West Bank under Israel control. Last August he got official U.S. support for that policy.

Sharon is building a "security fence" that translates that policy into a de facto new border for Israel. He is expanding Jewish settlements around predominantly Arab East Jerusalem to cut it off from the West Bank and eliminate the possibility that it could ever serve as the capital of a Palestinian state.

And Washington has promised to put no pressure on him for concessions to the Palestinians until he completes the unilateral withdrawal of some 8,500 Jewish settlers from the Gaza Strip, due to begin next month.

The Gaza settlements never made economic or military sense, as they are surrounded by 1.3 million Palestinians. "Disengaging" from them cuts the burden on the Israeli Army and saves money -- but it also gives Sharon a useful smoke screen. It lets him claim that he is making a major gesture for peace, and that he cannot be expected to act on other issues when he is fully occupied with fighting off extreme rightwing Israelis who are resisting the "disengagement process."

In reality, as Sharon's chief of staff Dov Weisglas explained last October, the disengagement process is intended to supply "the amount of formaldehyde that is necessary so there will not be a political process with the Palestinians. . . . When you freeze that process, you prevent the establishment of a Palestinian state, and you prevent a discussion on the refugees, the borders and Jerusalem.

"Effectively, this whole package called the Palestinian state, with all that it entails, has been removed indefinitely from our agenda. . . . all with a presidential blessing and the ratification of both houses of Congress."

Sharon spoke bluntly about his strategy to the Knesset in April: "I am doing everything I can to preserve as much (of the West Bank settlements) as I can." He is succeeding: By the time the Gaza withdrawal is complete, so should be the wall that cuts through the West Bank and defines the new de facto border between Israel and the occupied territories. But since Palestinians understand all this, they have concluded that Abbas' gamble that a "period of calm" would lead to genuine peace negotiations with Israel has failed.

Palestinians are turning more and more to Islamic movements that reject the whole notion of a permanent division of the land between Israel and a Palestinian state. Hamas' popular support has risen so fast that Abbas postponed the parliamentary elections scheduled for this summer, since a vote now might give Hamas and its allies a majority of seats.

And there is no earthly reason to believe that a visit by Rice will change any of this. The Bush administration has given Sharon a green light, and she is not going to switch it to red.

Gwynne Dyer is a London-based independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries.

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