In Mideast, a growing sense neither side has a solution

Israelis and Palestinians frustrated by violence with no apparent end

January 24, 2002|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

RAMALLAH, West Bank - Every once in a while, the gun turret atop an Israeli tank parked in front of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's walled compound turns toward a small group of children hurling stones.

The children run away, only to return within minutes to continue a futile ritual: It can demonstrate resistance but not drive away the tank at their leader's doorstep.

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon says the tank will be ordered away if Arafat dismantles militant groups responsible for acts of terror such as the one Tuesday in Jerusalem, in which a Palestinian gunman sprayed a busy street with gunfire, killing two women and wounding 14.

The strategy is to drive Arafat into political obscurity - isolate and humiliate him, make him irrelevant. Or, as described yesterday by Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres: "turn Arafat into a symbolic leader with no influence. ... Arafat must establish his credibility. If he doesn't stop the terror, the terror will stop him."

Arafat sounds defiant. He responds best with his back to the wall, Israeli and Palestinian observers say, and this latest form of house arrest is yet another battle in his long war with Israel.

"He loves being in a crisis," said Munther S. Dajani, chairman of the political science department at Al-Quds University. "The problem is that Sharon promised peace to his people and failed to deliver. His only plan is to crush the Palestinians, and that is just not going to happen. We have been in worse situations in the past, and we will be in worse situations in the future."

Palestinian parliament leader Ahmed Korei, known as Abu Ala, told a committee of the French National Parliament yesterday that there is little time left to reach a permanent peace settlement.

"The time that separates us from a great catastrophe in the region is very short if there is no responsible international action to put an end to the offensive against the Palestinian people," he said.

But diplomacy has almost been forgotten in the past few days amid anger and sorrow over the latest round of funerals.

Yesterday, Palestinians in the West Bank city of Nablus buried four members of the Islamic militant group Hamas killed Tuesday in an Israeli commando raid on an apartment building Israel said was used as bomb factory. Israelis buried two women gunned down Tuesday as they strolled Jaffa Road, Jerusalem's main shopping thoroughfare.

Israeli leaders insist the image of tit-for-tat bloodshed is false. They say Palestinians are waging a war of terror and that Israelis are defending against it. But Sharon's rightist coalition has found it difficult to decide how to do battle.

The political left complains that Sharon uses violence to sabotage peace; the far right accuses him of being too soft by not overrunning the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Meanwhile, Israelis and Palestinians blame each other for the steadily escalating violence.

"Yasser Arafat issues empty slogans about cease-fires and readiness to negotiate when he can't come up with a single reasonable plan," the Israeli newspaper Haaretz editorialized yesterday. "Ariel Sharon responds with his own slogans about readiness for painful concessions without presenting any plan that can be discussed."

U.S. officials, speaking privately, said there is growing concern that Sharon is afraid to begin peace talks because he would be forced to solve politically difficult problems, such as the fate of Jewish settlements in the West Bank.

Left-wing members of Sharon's government have accused him of having ordered the assassination of a Palestinian militant last week to provoke another round of violence, because bloodshed had subsided to the point where negotiations seemed possible.

Government officials fiercely deny such statements. They contend that Raed Karmi, the militant killed by a bomb blast, was on his way to kill an Israeli leader.

Sharon called the recent lull in fighting illusory. The violence slowed but did not stop, he said, and the Palestinians used the period to restructure their forces and stockpile weapons instead of dismantling militant groups.

The Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, which claimed responsibility for the recent deadly attacks in Jerusalem and Hadera, issued a statement last night saying that the group's retaliation for the apparent assassination of its leader had ended. The group told the Reuters news agency that it will again adhere to Arafat's Dec. 16 call for a cease-fire, on condition that Israel halt its policy of targeted killings.

Hamas reissued its call for a "fierce war" against Israel and vowed yesterday to carry out a new campaign of suicide bombings to avenge Israel's killing of four senior members during the Nablus raid.

Such talk has prompted Israel's right wing to urge Sharon to retake the West Bank and Gaza.

"Ultimately, there is no alternative to bringing Arafat's rule to an end," said Danny Naveh, a minister without portfolio and member of Sharon's Likud Party.

U.S. officials fear Arafat has not grasped the gravity of his situation and that by failing to rein in terror groups operating out of his cities, he will lead his people to disaster.

Palestinians have asked the United States for help and worry that silence from the White House gives Sharon the green light to launch further attacks on cities in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

The U.S. ambassador to Israel, Daniel C. Kurtzer, speaking yesterday to an Israeli peace group, said it is up to Israelis and Palestinians to resolve their conflict.

"You are the ones who choose your government," Kurtzer said. "You are the ones who decide who rules and who doesn't rule. They need to hear from you."

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