Omens of Mideast peace disappear at checkpoints

Palestinians await easing of restrictions

January 03, 2002|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

QALANDIYA, West Bank - This used to be a simple military post, the dividing line between the West Bank and the outer suburbs of Jerusalem. Now it is a virtual fortress, manned by Israeli soldiers, their checkpoint boasting fenced-in walkways, with Palestinian merchants hawking everything from tea to socks to the hundreds of people waiting to cross.

For Israelis, this is about security. The checkpoint keeps West Bank Palestinians out of Israel. To Palestinians, this is another form of harassment, set up to humiliate and control innocent people.

And this is where the new, good omens for peace seem to evaporate.

The omens include the expected return to the region of Anthony C. Zinni, the U.S. mediator scheduled to begin today his second attempt to secure a lasting cease-fire. His first trip at the end of November was marred by violence and ended in failure.

To mark Zinni's arrival with a goodwill gesture, the Israelis have vowed to ease restrictions at checkpoints like Qalandiya, a dusty crossroads marked by tangles of traffic and wave after wave of people. Yesterday, the Israeli promise had not yet been fulfilled.

In the middle of the pedestrian crush stood Saber Abu Omar, a 30-year-old Palestinian dressed in torn blue jeans, struggling to sell honey sweets to the swirling masses funneled into a single line at the guard towers here. He has baked and sold desserts for a decade, usually in the bustling West Bank city of Ramallah.

But the people are at Qalandiya now, and so is Omar, forced to trade his corner shop for a cart on a rock-strewn military-made parade route, where his goods sell for just half of what he can get just a few miles north at his shop. This is one of the few places where he can reliably find a crowd - at a checkpoint, not in Ramallah. It's not enough, he said, to feed his wife and child.

He will be able to return to his comfortable store only when the checkpoint restrictions end and crowds once again fill the empty streets of Ramallah.

When talk turns to politics, Omar echoes the Palestinian Authority on Yasser Arafat. But what is tired rhetoric to some is simple logic to the people who feel stuck in place: The Palestinians have put down their guns and are observing a cease-fire ordered by Arafat, Omar said, so why can't the Israelis make life easier for people like him?

"We have implemented everything we were told to do," Omar said. "But we don't see the Israelis doing anything in return. It seems that they are making life harder for us. They are not interested in having quiet."

It is a central issue not only for Palestinians making their livings from pushcarts, but also for Israeli officials who are split on whether Arafat has done enough to rein in militants and reduce violence - keys to unlocking the next step of a fragile peace process.

Paul Patin, a spokesman for the U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv, said Zinni will "continue to encourage the Palestinian Authority to crack down on terrorists and the terrorist infrastructure." Then, Patin said, the retired Marine general will try to get Israel to "lighten up on the closures and restrictions of movement."

That could pave the way for putting into place a U.S.-designed framework for peace, which calls for a period of quiet, a six-week cooling-off period and mutual concessions on both sides. "Ultimately, we would like to get back to negotiations," Patin said.

But Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has reiterated his long-held stance that the peace initiative cannot begin until seven days of "complete quiet" have passed. He said that the countdown has not yet begun.

U.S. officials and Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres, noting a substantial drop in attacks since Arafat ordered a cease-fire Dec. 16, are eager to implement the proposals this week. They note that a complete cessation of violence is an impossible goal.

"It gives veto power to any punk with a rock," a U.S. official said yesterday. "Progress is progress, and we have to build on what we have. But it looks like this seven days is going to be a sticking point."

Peres, who has been holding his own talks with top Palestinian officials, said yesterday that two more days of quiet are needed before official negotiations can resume. "Time should not be wasted," he told Israeli Radio.

But Sharon and his aides said that Arafat has not arrested the most dangerous of militants, and he charged that extremist groups are using the lull in fighting to stockpile more weapons and plan additional terrorist attacks.

"Every day we witness a permanent amount of terror," said Israeli Cabinet Secretary Gidon Saar. "It is true that the volume of terror has dropped. Today we stand at an average of 10 to 12 incidents every day, but we are definitely not in a period of quiet."

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