Israel poised to begin exiting occupied land

December 12, 1993|By Doug Struck | Doug Struck,Jerusalem Bureau

JERUSALEM -- They aren't much, these places Israel is supposed to turn over to the Palestinians starting tomorrow.

Gaza is a flat, charmless strip a bit wider than Assateague Island, with ghettos of Calcutta-like crowding and pits filled with rotting garbage.

Jericho has the grace of shade and handsome citrus orchards. But it moves with Third World indolence, gripped most of the year by stupefying heat at the lowest spot on earth. Even the buildings seem wilted.

But when Israeli troops and civil servants move out of these areas -- at least a symbolic beginning is expected tomorrow -- it will mark a turn in a conflict that has preoccupied the world like a modern biblical tale.

It is a tale magnified by its passions: two peoples who claim the same land, paralyzed by mutual hatred and religious self-certainty, looking for support from other nations and vindication by their own god.

"Everyone wants peace," Asad Saftawi, a Palestinian leader, said at his home in the Gaza Strip in June. Four months later, he was killed by fellow Palestinians, proof he was wrong.

On a practical level, the pullout dictated by the Sept. 13 agreement between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization will begin the dismantling of an occupation that has plagued all parties for 26 years.

The most optimistic see this as the start of a process that will lead to a new Middle East, a region free of the warfare that has been the cadence of its history, a place of Europe-like ease through borders and business deals struck between old military foes.

The most pessimistic see this as too little, too late, a feeble Band-Aid over a major hemorrhage. It fails to bring either justice to Palestinians or peace to Israelis, and will wither in the heat of further violence, they say.

Ironically, on the very eve of the start of the withdrawal, the pessimists hold sway. Three months ago joyful Jewish and Arab celebrants surged into the streets. Today, a vote on the peace plan likely would fail, rejected by both Israelis and Palestinians.

Violence from the political fringes has soured the enthusiasm. It is left to two hard-line warriors, Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and PLO chairman Yasser Arafat, to push the deal through. Neither is motivated by love for the other; both see their arrangement as the best of unpleasant choices.

"Nothing will deter this government and me from our determination to implement the agreement," Mr. Rabin said last week as an upsurge of violence conspired against him.

These two old enemies are expected to meet today in Cairo to nudge the process along. Neither side is ready for a wholesale handover of authority in Jericho and the Gaza Strip. But they are likely to transfer at least some authority in the areas.

Israel promised to begin withdrawal from Jericho and the Gaza Strip tomorrow, and complete it within four months, by April 13.

By July 13, according to their agreement, Israel will pull back from populated Arab areas in the rest of the West Bank, and Palestinians will hold an election for an autonomous Palestinian Council.

"We have to finish the peace process as quickly as possible," Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres said Friday. "I believe that despite the difficulties, we can overcome the differences."

The withdrawal that sounds so bold today was expected by most Israelis 26 years ago. Immediately after Israel rolled with stunning speed into Egypt, Syria and Jordan in the 1967 Six Day War, Jewish leaders planned to trade most of the land in return for peace.

"Everything is negotiable," Abba Eban, then foreign minister, declared at the time.

'Sell them for peace'

"The value of the [captured areas] was that you could sell them for peace," Mr. Eban, now a lecturer at George Washington University, said this week by telephone from his home in New York. "There never was a feeling of holding onto the whole thing."

Israel agreed to trade the Sinai at Camp David in 1978, giving back most of that desert peninsula to Egypt for a peace treaty with its largest Arab neighbor.

But the booty of the West Bank and Gaza Strip was a siren, an attraction dangerous to hold but too hard to give up. The Jewish state would not annex an area then filled with 1 million Arabs, but neither could it bring itself to let the property go.

Inevitably, hooks of permanence were sunk in the land. The Labor government started settlements as outposts of defense against the next Arab invasion. They were filled by religious Jews who claimed a biblical title to the land and by nationalist Zionists eager to expand the borders of Israel.

Israel's indecision was abetted by Arabs, who spurned chances to negotiate and kept beating the drums of war.

The paralysis led to what is now one of the longest military occupations since World War II. It is condemned by other nations, has divided the Jewish people, and turned the Palestinians increasingly desperate and bitter.

Ultimately, it was violence that begat peace.

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