Elusiveness of peace fuels Mideast fighting Christopher to push talks amid rise in violence among Israelis, Arabs

February 21, 1993|By Doug Struck | Doug Struck,Jerusalem Bureau

JERUSALEM -- Fading hopes of peace between Israelis and Palestinians are fueling more violence by both sides as U.S. Secretary of State Warren M. Christopher makes his first visit to the area to test the chances of reviving the peace process.

The latest increase in killings has ended the two-year decline in violence that began with the strict curfews during the 1991 Persian Gulf war and extended through the first year of the Middle East peace talks.

Gunfire is now the common language between Jews and Arabs as the negotiations have stalled. Palestinians are dying at the rate of nearly one every two days from Israeli fire. Israeli soldiers themselves are increasingly targets; in the last two months Palestinians have killed seven Israeli soldiers.

"This more and more looks like a war than a popular uprising," said Yizhar Be'er, who monitors the casualties for an Israeli human rights group, B'tselem.

Mr. Christopher will arrive here tomorrow to discuss the prospects for restarting the peace process. There has been no progress in the negotiations since the U.S. election, and the Israeli deportation of 415 Palestinians on Dec. 17 worsened the prospects.

The talks, which began in October 1991, are seen as crucial to stopping what four European ambassadors on Thursday called a "rapidly deteriorating situation in the territories."

The ambassadors, representing leadership of the European Community, sent a protest to Israel over human rights practices in the West Bank and Gaza. In response, Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister Yossi Beilin said that the harsher means were necessary to combat violence by Palestinians.

On Friday, the United Nations Human Rights Commission in Geneva condemned Israel's actions in the occupied territories and for the first time, appointed a special investigator to monitor alleged abuses.

Overriding U.S. opposition, the commission censured Israel for violating the rights of Palestinians. U.N. officials said the deportation of the Palestinians was a major factor in pushing through the vote.

Even before the impasse over the deportations, however, the failure of the negotiations to produce an agreement had led to a hardening of tactics in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

Palestinians who joyously greeted the start of the peace negotiations in 1991 are now picking up weapons on an unprecedented scale. The number of shooting incidents by Palestinians last year rose 76 percent from the previous year.

"Everybody knew the Palestinians had many guns," said Mr. Be'er. "In the past, they didn't use them. Now, the situation has become worse."

Israeli security forces are also using greater force. Soldiers regularly shoot live ammunition at rock-throwing youths. The number of Palestinians killed has swelled to 64 in the past four months. Human rights groups say most victims were unarmed.

In December and January, 19 children were killed.

Israel has embraced other tactics. The army has blasted 20 homes in the last month with rockets and anti-tank weapons to discourage the harboring of activists. They arrested nearly 1,600 Palestinians in December and deported the 415 in reaction to the increased violence.

Curfews of entire areas continue on a daily basis. Israelis have closed mosques, chopped down olive groves and sealed off roads in villages to restrict the movements of opponents.

"They just said, 'Everybody out.' And then they started firing rockets," said Farraj Doghmosh, whose home in the Gaza Strip was recently destroyed in an Israeli raid. "They hit it with about 70 rockets. And they didn't catch any [suspects] here."

"Gratuitous cruelty is on the rise," said Hanan Ashrawi, spokeswoman for the Palestinian peace negotiators. "The only way an Israeli leader thinks he can get his credentials is the more brutal the more credibility he has."

Israeli officials say they are reacting to the growth in strength of extremist Palestinian groups such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad, who preach violence and have engaged in increasingly daring attacks.

"In terms of dealing with armed terrorists, we're taking the attitude that we have to be as active as possible," said Lt. Col. Moshe Fogel, a spokesman for the Israeli army.

"There's been a rise everywhere of violence by all types," he said. "A whole series of events has deepened the violence."

Chief among them, according to Ghassan Khatib, a professor at Bir Zeit University in Ramallah, is a sense of hopelessness that has gripped Palestinians who see no progress from the peace talks.

"People thought the peace talks would improve our lives," said Professor Khatib, a member of the Palestinian negotiating team. "But Palestinians do not feel any positive changes. On the contrary, the government is escalating the violence."

Israel's tough measures backfire, he said. As armed attacks by small groups such as Hamas provoked a sharp Israeli response, more Palestinians came to see such tactics as an attractive way to hurt the occupiers.

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