Middle East security pact on the verge of collapse

Israel delays troop pullout amid continuing violence

August 26, 2002|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

BEIT JALA, West Bank - It was just a week ago that Mohammed Issa, the deputy police chief of Bethlehem and its surrounding Palestinian villages, retrieved his Egyptian pistol from his desk, put on a new uniform and began to reassert authority on the streets of the city.

Under an accord reached Aug. 18, the Israeli army had pulled out after keeping Beit Jala and neighboring Bethlehem under curfew for nine weeks, and Issa and his force could finally venture from the ruins of their police stations and perform their duties.

If Issa and other officers like him could keep the peace here, Israeli troops would gradually withdraw from other West Bank cities and the Gaza Strip, returning control of those areas to the Palestinian Authority for the first time since June.

By yesterday, that agreement between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, known as "Gaza and Bethlehem First," was in danger of collapsing. Bethlehem and surrounding villages remained the only places where the agreement had been implemented. And as with previous accords, each side blamed the other for the setback.

Israeli officials said Palestinians were attempting too many attacks against soldiers and Jewish settlements, especially in Gaza, for soldiers to withdraw. Palestinian officials countered that Israeli troops should move back and give Palestinian police a chance to restore order. And hard-liners on each side have tried to undermine the agreement.

Palestinian Interior Minister Abdel Raziq Yehiyeh has met repeatedly during the past week with militant leaders from Hamas, Islamic Jihad and the Aqsa Martyrs Brigades to try to persuade them to stop attacks and give the agreement a chance.

In a statement published in English in Palestinian newspapers yesterday, Yehiyeh said he had "asserted the need to reassess and revise accordingly the strategy of resistance and to review its presently adopted forms so as to comply with the international norms and legitimacy."

Militant leaders responded by urging the Palestinian Authority to end talks with Israeli officials, and called the cease-fire initiative a capitulation to Israel.

"Any Palestinian flexibility would encourage the Israeli enemy for more aggression and destruction against our people," said Saleh Zeidan of the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine.

Israeli Cabinet Minister Danny Naveh, a member of the right-wing Likud Party, criticized the security agreement on Israel Radio, saying it only bolstered the status of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. Naveh said the cease-fire agreement had been "frozen," a situation he blamed on the Palestinians.

"They haven't done anything serious" to halt terror and violence, he said.

Israeli Defense Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer, who drafted the security plan, responded with a statement denying that the accord had been frozen but added that further withdrawals might not take place until after the Jewish High Holy Days in five weeks.

"Despite the media's natural tendency to look for immediate results, the matter cannot be evaluated according to daily progress, but only over time," the statement said. "It is pointless to move forward," Ben-Eliezer said on state television, "unless there is quiet and the warnings [of attacks] have stopped."

During the weekend, Israeli troops shot and killed two Palestinians in Jenin who had wounded two soldiers. A suspected suicide bomber was arrested in a village south of the West Bank city, and a Palestinian woman believed to be on her way to carry out an attack died in an explosion in Tulkarm, the army said.

In Beit Jala, Issa faced a difficult task. Up to 30 percent of the Bethlehem police force has been killed or jailed by the Israeli army, all but a handful of its vehicles crushed or seized, and most police stations demolished.

Under the accord, 200 Palestinian police officers were allowed to travel last week from Jericho, the only Palestinian town not occupied by Israel, to the Bethlehem area. They had to share 50 guns.

Issa deployed officers along the ridgeline to prevent gunmen from shooting across the valley at the Jerusalem neighborhood of Gilo and at a highway used by Jewish settlers below. Another officer was stationed near Rachel's Tomb, a frequent flash point.

"Our security is Israel's security," Issa said, sitting behind his bare desk at the Beit Jala police station. "We will do our part. No one is allowed to have a gun unless they are in a police uniform. We just hope that Israel lives up to its obligations.

"We don't want anyone to give Israel an excuse to breach the agreement," said Issa, 51, who said he was a fighter with the Palestine Liberation Organization and returned to the West Bank from exile with Arafat in 1994.

"We will be happy the most when we don't see any Israeli military," Bethlehem's deputy chief said last week. "We hope that this is just the start, that they will withdraw from all Palestinian areas."

Issa took his gun from his holster and held it up. He has owned it for eight years and turned it over to show the serial number.

"It's registered with Israel," he said, adding that he sent a letter to the Israeli army asking for the return of the rest of the weapons it had seized. He said he has not received a reply.

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