VIOLENCE in the occupied territories is reaching an alarming level as the Dec. 13 deadline for a withdrawal of Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) from the Gaza Strip and Jericho approaches. Official Israeli and Palestinian efforts to play down the violence are understandable. But it is folly to believe that September's historic peace plan can truly take hold if the atmosphere in the territories continues to deteriorate.
On Tuesday, 65 Palestinians were wounded as the IDF conducted searches for militants. Since Nov. 23 seven Palestinians have been killed, including a Fatah leader who had renounced violence. Israel has now closed off Gaza to reporters.
On Wednesday, two Israeli settlers in the West Bank were killed, touching off protests in Jerusalem. Talks in Cairo on Palestinian self-governance and Israeli withdrawal continue to stall on a variety of details.
Reports from Gaza indicate it will be a miracle if the Dec. 13 deadline is met. If it is not, both sides, but especially Israel, must consider how badly they want the peace to succeed. Tel Aviv clearly has the power to make peace happen. Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin took a serious step in the right direction by implying that the IDF crackdown in Gaza was something of a mistake. But more is needed.
First, withdrawal or redeployment of troops in Gaza - even if the Dec. 13 deadline is missed - is essential. Granted, the IDF provides stability and must be replaced. But the euphoria in Gaza after Sept. 13 was due to an expectation that the everpresent IDF would soon leave the refugee camps and the urban areas like Gaza City, and would cease to so define daily life there. After the past week it is not too much to say that the IDF is utterly destabilizing. If the IDF does not withdraw, the intifadah may return.
The harder question is the status of the heavily armed Israeli settlers in Gaza, 4,000 people out of 830,000 on the tiny strip. They occupy 25 percent of the land, giving each Israeli 84 times that of a Palestinian; they use 16 times the amount of precious water. If peace is worth something, Rabin may have to negotiate with the 4,000. Given what others are paying, the question should be on the table.
Finally, the world community must give the PLO money to spend on the ground. There will be a tradeoff between economic development and the need for a political payoff by Yasser Arafat to various wings of the PLO. But Gazans need to see a tangible change in environment.