Vague Mideast pact eyed skeptically by both sides

Israel begins withdrawal, but the violence continues

August 20, 2002|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

BETHLEHEM, West Bank - Everyone who lives on the narrow cobblestone streets of this city heard the news, and nearly all remembered how many times they had heard the same vague promises.

Israeli and Palestinian officials confirmed that Israeli troops began withdrawing last night from the city's outskirts as part of a tentative truce that could expand to include all of the West Bank and Gaza Strip - news that Palestinians here greeted with skeptical looks and complaints that their leaders had sold them out.

"This agreement will be a disaster," said Nayef Mo'eti, a 37-year-old cabdriver waiting in vain for riders at Manger Square, the center of the city. "We need either comprehensive peace or comprehensive destruction. It's impossible to do this piecemeal."

Palestinian and Israeli negotiators reached the accord, called "Gaza and Bethlehem First," during a three-hour meeting Sunday in Tel Aviv. Both sides hailed it as a breakthrough after months in which Israeli and Palestinian officials had virtually nothing to show for their efforts.

Under the agreement, Palestinian officials pledged that their police will subdue militant groups in the Gaza Strip and Bethlehem. In exchange, the Israeli army promised to withdraw from those areas and eventually to expand the withdrawal if peace is maintained.

Promises and doubts

It was the first such accord between the two sides in nearly two years that did not require outside intervention. But there is considerable doubt that the agreement will succeed.

Each side's promises were deliberately left vague. Israel did not commit to any timetable for withdrawing troops, and can decide if and when conditions are right to expand the withdrawal. Palestinians vowed to prevent attacks by armed militias but did not say how or promise to arrest their members.

The agreement also falls well short of each side's desires. It does not guarantee Israel an end to suicide bombings and other attacks, and does not restore to Palestinians full control over any part of the West Bank and Gaza.

And there is nothing new or untried in the accord. Israel has pulled its forces out of West Bank cities before, contingent on Palestinian police cracking down on gunmen, only to have the agreement be undermined by suicide bombers.

Leaders of the Israeli right complained that the agreement would undo the army's successes against militants. Palestinian militant groups, including Hamas and Islamic Jihad, vowed to launch attacks to undermine the agreement, calling it a plot to end the Palestinian uprising.

Residents here said there was no reason to celebrate an accord that fails to restore conditions to what they were two years ago, when the latest Palestinian uprising began.

"What have we gained?" asked Mo'eti, sitting on a curb in Manger Square when the Israeli army lifted its curfew.

The Palestinian Authority gained control over Bethlehem and other West Bank cities 10 years ago, only to see its powers almost destroyed.

"Now we're back to where we were 10 years ago," said Mo'eti. "We've already had `Gaza First.' We had Bethlehem once. We've already been through this, and look where it got us."

Bethlehem residents are not the only people who are wary. Prime Minister Ariel Sharon allowed Israeli officials to meet with their Palestinian counterparts but has said through aides that he does not believe the initiative will work.

American and European diplomats have pressed the Israeli government to ease restrictions on Palestinians, and to make a goodwill gesture to the newly appointed Palestinian security chief, Abdel Razak Yehiyeh.

Yehiyeh, in an interview with the Associated Press, said that opponents of the new accord "say in other words that they want a continuation of the siege and continuation of the occupation of the cities."

"From our side, we will take all the necessary procedures to achieve internal security and public security" in areas from which Israeli troops withdraw.

Jordan and Egypt are expected to send experts to help reform the Palestinian police. The CIA has been helping Yehiyeh and his police commanders restructure the force so it can confront militant groups.

Israeli troops reoccupied seven West Bank cities in June, after a series of suicide bombings that targeted Israeli civilians. Since then, soldiers have enforced strict curfews on more than 700,000 Palestinians.

Deputy Israeli Defense Minister Weizman Shiri said the agreement represents a small first step toward restoring order in the Palestinian territories. "This is the last opportunity given to people who presume to lead the Palestinian people."

Meanwhile, violence continued yesterday in the West Bank. In Nablus, three Israeli soldiers and several Palestinians were wounded in an exchange of fire in the central market, where the army said it had uncovered a large bomb-making factory. In Burkin, a village near Jenin, Palestinian officials said a 13-year-old girl was killed by Israeli army gunfire. The army had no immediate comment.

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