After invasion, Israelis appear stuck for a way out

Withdrawal is promised, but government hasn't settled on conditions

October 27, 2001|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

JERUSALEM - A cartoon published this week in an Israeli newspaper shows Prime Minister Ariel Sharon driving an army tank into a Palestinian city. "I can't find the reverse," he says into his cell phone.

It is an apt description of Israel's dilemma after the Israeli army staged its largest military strike in Palestinian territories in years. Now that its tanks are parked on streets throughout the Palestinian controlled West Bank, how does the army pull out?

Sharon, facing mounting pressure from the United States, promises a full withdrawal. But no definitive timetable has been set. And each day brings news of more Palestinian deaths - militants blown up in cars, gunmen shot down by rooftop snipers and, in several cases, children killed by gunfire.

The biblical town of Bethlehem is in shambles, and nightly television images of urban combat around hotels, hospitals and churches have sparked an outcry from local religious leaders as well as from the Vatican, which is pressing for calm on both sides.

Sharon's Cabinet has announced that the army will pull out in stages. The withdrawal would begin in areas that have remained quiet and where Palestinian security forces promise to prevent attacks on Israeli citizens and dismantle militant groups.

Israeli troops are expected first to leave the hilltop village of Beit Jala and neighboring Bethlehem, perhaps as soon as this weekend. A joint Israeli-Palestinian security meeting was held yesterday to work out the final details.

A military pullout would end the latest round of attacks that have blocked peace negotiations. The two sides, said Israeli political scientist Efraim Inbar, are engaged in a "competition of pain."

Inbar, the director of the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies at Bar-Ilan University in Tel Aviv, said that outside demands, even from the United States, are counterproductive. "Sharon wants to show the Americans that he is the one that says when we get out," he said, noting that Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat has also defied the United States by refusing to arrest most militants.

"Our government is not the only one saying no to the U.S.," Inbar said.

Palestinian officials complain that Israel's only accomplishment was to inflict more suffering on the Palestinians. Yesterday, Palestinian officials confirmed that security officials have arrested more than 70 suspected militants, including ones who orchestrated an Oct. 2 raid on an Israeli settlement in the Gaza Strip that left two people dead.

Israel's incursions began last week just as peace negotiations seemed imminent. But a series of assassinations ruined the prospects for talks.

On Oct. 14, Israeli snipers killed a suspected militant as he stood on the roof of his house in the West Bank city of Qalqilya. Three days later, Palestinian gunmen linked to a militant group opposed to any peace plan assassinated Israeli Tourism Minister Rehavam Zeevi in East Jerusalem.

Israeli tanks then rolled into three West Bank cities. A day later a popular militant leader was killed in an unexplained car explosion near Bethlehem. Palestinian gunmen then opened fire on the Jerusalem neighborhood of Gilo, and Israel sent troops into more Palestinian areas.

Now, there is a growing feeling that the Israeli operation has exhausted itself. But the conditions for exiting keep changing, reflecting arguments within Sharon's government. While the political right advocates destroying the Palestinian Authority, the left wants to resume political negotiations.

Bethlehem is where some of the most intense fighting has raged and more than half the estimated 40 Palestinian deaths since Oct. 18 have occurred. Three Palestinians were killed Thursday and another shot dead yesterday. And despite hundreds of soldiers in the heart of Beit Jala, Palestinian gunman continue to elude detection and fire across the valley at Gilo.

It raises questions about whether the military goals have been met. When the army entered Bethlehem, Sharon's government first demanded that Arafat arrest the assassins of the Cabinet minister and turn them over to Israel. Then, the government demanded that Arafat arrest and extradite all militant leaders, dismantle and disarm their organizations and prevent terrorist attacks on Israel.

Over the course of the operation, Israel has killed suspected militants, arrested several suspects in Zeevi's killing and captured 42 alleged members of terrorist organizations. If Arafat doesn't arrest them, Israeli officials say, then they will do it for him.

Foreign Minister Shimon Peres, a member of the left-of-center Labor Party, favors an immediate pullout from every city and town. Defense Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer favors pulling out quickly, but not all at once.

Sharon wants the pullout done in slow stages. But some in the army want to remain indefinitely and argue publicly that a withdrawal now will be followed by a renewed terror attack, such as a suicide bombing, within Israel.

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