As Israelis leave West Bank, Gaza Strip, many wonder what lies on road ahead

May 17, 1994|By Doug Struck | Doug Struck,Jerusalem Bureau of The Sun

JERUSALEM -- The young Israeli soldier sat on a dirt mound in the Gaza Strip last week, contemplating the efforts of his fellow soldiers to control jubilant Palestinians preparing to greet their own police.

"Every soldier is very happy to leave," he said. "We hated the job we had to do here."

The scenes of exultant Palestinians welcoming their takeover in the West Bank town of Jericho and the Gaza Strip last week have prompted sober reflection among Israelis, who are leaving after 27 years of occupation.

Many in Israel realize that after years of debating the trip, they finally are started on a long road toward a new relationship with Palestinians.

They still are not sure where it leads; they know only they could no longer stay where they were.

"I am proud this government is leaving Shati, Jabaliya, Nuseirat, El-Bureij and Gaza City," Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin said last week, speaking of the crowded towns and refugee camps of the Gaza Strip.

Israeli soldiers "have no reason to be there, and no one has the right to endanger their lives in order to be there," he said in a spontaneous retort to condemnations by opponents in a Knesset debate Wednesday.

It was a blunt acknowledgment from the man who was chief of staff when Israel captured the territories in 1967 and has headed the army for 13 years of the occupation.

His conclusion finds support from most Israelis, however, who feel no affinity for the troublesome Gaza Strip. More of them feel a strong attachment to the West Bank, biblical Judea and Samaria. But the majority of Israelis never go there.

But what happens next? Suddenly Israelis are looking at answers to this question, and they are nervous about what they see.

The agreement Israel has made with the Palestinians calls for a withdrawal from most of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, the establishment of Palestinian limited government there, and five years of negotiations over the areas' "final status."

Israelis are so frustrated with the grinding Palestinian conflict that they are willing to support a peace process that seems likely to lead to a solution they do not want.

The process points provocatively to a Palestinian state of some kind, next to an Israel that largely pulls back to the narrow borders it had before the 1967 Six-Day War. Both of those conclusions are routinely rejected in public opinion polls, and it has been standard fare for Israeli politicians to swear that they will not let it happen.

"In the past, our leaders would emphasize that under no arrangement would Israel return to the 1967 borders," said columnist Ephraim Kam in the Hebrew daily Ma'ariv. "Today, this determination is almost never heard."

In his book "The New Middle East," Shimon Peres, the Israeli foreign minister and chief architect of the peace plan, paints a rosy picture of the future.

Palestinians, Jordanians and maybe even Israelis will form a loose confederation in which trade and accompanying prosperity will flow freely and bountifully across borders, he predicts. Israelis will travel by car into Arab nations at peace with the Jewish state, giving them a sense of liberty they have not known since the founding of the state.

Less optimistic forecasters evoke the past and paint a much more claustrophobic picture of the future. They recall the frighteningly thin shape of Israel before the 1967 war, in which the West Bank town of Qalqiliya was only 10 miles from the Tel Aviv suburb of Herzliya on the Mediterranean coast, and planes landing at what is now Ben Gurion Airport circle over Arab villages just a few miles away.

Sometime after the 1967 war, Israel stopped printing maps with the "Green Line" showing the boundaries of the occupied territories. Israel never annexed the territories -- which were, after all, filled with Arabs -- but tried hard to ignore their border.

Israel already has tacitly acknowledged the return of those boundaries. In response to Palestinian attacks, it imposed another closure in March that has put army checkpoints on the roads at the old Green Line. The closure is politically popular in Israel, and few objections have been heard about a return to old map lines.

The major exception to the old border line is East Jerusalem, which Israel captured in 1967 and has adamantly declared a part of its permanent territory.

Less clear are the 144 Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Gaza.

The settlers proclaim the land as part of Israel. Mr. Rabin has beencompelled to guarantee that they will stay under Israeli protection, though his enthusiasm for this small but vocal minority is low -- "windmills," he has called them dismissively.

But narrow borders are only one of the pitfalls worrying Israelis on this new road. They see a government accustomed to railing about Palestinian terrorists now opening prison doors to release thousands of Palestinian inmates.

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