Israelis, Palestinians preparing for violence

Each side warning other of high cost of failing at peace talks

Stern words, hard training

July 21, 2000|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip - If Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat looked into the abyss late Wednesday and decided to resume seeking peace, they may have seen there a vision that resembled the face of Wassim.

This 14-year-old doesn't shave yet, but he can take apart and reassemble a Kalashnikov automatic rifle with practiced ease in just a few minutes. Then, with a steady gaze that suddenly makes him look older, he yanks the butt to his shoulder, points the gun upward and demonstrates how to shoot.

He is one of about 500 youngsters, ages 12 to 16, being trained for 45 days this summer at five military camps in the Gaza Strip run by Arafat's Fatah movement.

The boy, whose family name is Arafat but is no relation to the Palestinian leader, is one of nine children. His older brother, now in law school, proudly fought in the Palestinian uprising of a decade ago.

In a voice just starting to break, Wassim explains that he entered the camp on the outskirts of Gaza City to learn self-defense and "to liberate my country."

Few imagine that Yasser Arafat seriously plans to send young boys against Israeli soldiers, tanks and attack helicopters. But he has set events in motion before that he could not fully control, such as the demonstrations May 15 that escalated sharply into riots and gunbattles.

The fact that the Palestine Liberation Organization's mainstream Fatah movement in- vites the foreign press to watch and film the sweating teens sends a message that even the youngest are being prepared for the consequences of a collapse of the peace process.

President Clinton has expressed concerns of new violence, and each side here is seeking to warn the other.

The Israeli army says it has heard of battalion-size military maneuvers among Palestinian police in Gaza, and senior officers are concerned that mass rallies might be organized to march on Jewish settlements or army outposts in the occupied territories.

"If we see a mob storming a settlement or military installation, crossing a fence, we will try to stop it with soft measures," a senior Israeli military official told reporters recently. "If it becomes a life-threatening situation, we will shoot like in a life-threatening situation."

Jewish settlers are being trained to be part of "regional defense teams" and armed with the rubber bullets and tear gas that the Israeli military uses for crowd control.

"We'll shoot everyone who crosses into settlements or into military bases near Jerusalem," Moshe Hager-Lau, security adviser to the settlers movement, told the magazine Jerusalem Report .

Arafat says he plans to declare a Palestinian state unilaterally if no peace agreement has been reached by the agreed deadline of Sept. 13. Barak has threatened to respond with unilateral measures of his own, annexing West Bank settlements that he wants to be a permanent part of Israel.

One Israeli Defense Ministry concern is the possibility that Arafat's police might move quickly to assert sovereignty over areas the PLO sees as part of a Palestinian state, such as mostly Arab East Jerusalem or the road network built for settlers in the West Bank. Such actions would set the stage for fierce clashes with Israeli soldiers.

But Ahmad Tibi, an Arab Israeli member of parliament and former Arafat adviser, told Israel Radio yesterday that even though there is "a tangible tension" between the two sides, he does not expect an immediate confrontation.

Instead, he predicted, there would be "continuous talks, contacts."

If that doesn't work, young Wassim would likely be part of the next generation of the Arab-Israeli conflict. He said he was told on entering the camp that "if anything happens in the future, you're going to be ready."

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