Why Israel Delays Its Pullout

US pressure hasn't yielded West Bank action. One holdup: Withdrawal would leave Jewish settlers in a Palestinian sea.

Act I: Israeli soldiers won't let a group of Palestinians through the checkpoint. The Palestinians are indignant.

Act II: The army lets the Palestinians go, but a few Israeli settlers decide to block the road with cars, reacting to a similar blockade by Palestinians a few days earlier.

Act III: After a half-hour of posturing, both sides back off.

So went the show July 7 outside this Jewish settlement, which sits on a coastal Mediterranean road claimed by both Israelis and Palestinians as a key artery.

It was a cooler-headed finale than one five days earlier, when Israeli soldiers in armored vehicles and Palestinian police armed with assault rifles trained their weapons on each other in a 12-hour face-off.

Intervention by American, European, and Egyptian diplomats brought the brinkmanship to an end the next morning. But observers worry that such scenes could be played out again and again as Israel inches closer to agreeing to withdraw troops from some of the West Bank, as stipulated by the 1993 Oslo accords.

And the standoffs - including another one yesterday - are making it easier for hard-liners in Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's Cabinet to stand in the way of a decision on turning over land to the Palestinians. So settlements built to establish "facts on the ground" may now impede Oslo in ways not necessarily foreseen.

One of Mr. Netanyahu's right-wing ministers recently warned that the road-blocking events were a "dress rehearsal" for the violence likely to erupt throughout the West Bank if Israel withdraws from about 13 percent of the land there - a formula American officials have advocated.

The Israelis' great worry - or at least the one that some politicians are putting forward - is that after the next redeployment there will be many settlements like Gush Katif: accessible only by a road vulnerable to hostile takeovers by anyone from Palestinian officials to self-styled vigilantes.

The concerns are backed up by a map presented by the Israeli army last week, which suggested that 59 of 159 settlements were not essential to Israel's security. One-third of them look likely to be left clinging to Israel by a thread - that is, only a road.

"We're talking about a situation where the Israeli civilian population could be held hostage," says Yehudit Tayar, spokeswoman for the settlers in the West Bank and Gaza. "If you have a civilian community isolated and surrounded by a hostile army which could cut of electricity, water, access, anything, it's unthinkable."

Mark Heller, a political scientist at Tel Aviv University, says that the access quandary - whose police will control which roads and who will be allowed to travel on them - is at the core of what is holding up an agreement on the Israeli side.

"This is what the whole argument is about in terms of where any additional redeployment ought or ought not to take place," he says. "It's all about the West Bank settlements being put in a similar position to Gush Katif, where they are stranded at the end of isolated roads."

Palestinians, for their part, have grown despondent about their national aspirations. But on a more personal level, they're fed up with their travel hassles. In addition to stagnant plans to open a new Gaza airport and a "safe passage" between the West Bank and Gaza, any number of roads, territories, and crossing points may be closed to them at any given time.

In Gaza, Palestinians are required to travel two to a car on certain roads to prove that they are not potential suicide bombers.

One Palestinian Authority minister decided to make an example out of the obstacle course on July 2, when Israeli soldiers agreed to let him pass down this very coastal road by dint of his VIP card, but refused to grant access to cars traveling with him. The official, Abdel Azziz Shaheen, refused to budge until the rest of his entourage gained permission to travel the road, which Israel says had been closed to Palestinian traffic for security reasons.

When the convoy was held up, Palestinian police began setting up their own roadblocks at major intersections throughout the Gaza Strip and eventually found themselves in an intense draw with Israeli soldiers.

"The roads are supposed to be used for the Palestinians," Mohammed Dahlan, Palestinian President Yasser Arafat's top security chief in Gaza, told reporters. "These roads are being used by Israel to harass the Palestinian people. Israel is trying to stop people from going anywhere, to send a message to our people that the Palestinian Authority has no power.... Netanyahu only wants more chaos and conflict in order to say that the Palestinians are always resorting to force and violence."

SOME Israeli sources suggest that, on the contrary, the Palestinian Authority was trying to put on a show of force in Gaza - an act meant to show a disillusioned people that they still maintain the military option.

Analysts on both sides say they expect more episodes to come as the months draw closer to the May 1999, when the interim accords are supposed to end. Mr. Arafat says that he will then declare a Palestinian state, a move that some experts warn could serve as a declaration of war.

"We will be free from Oslo in 1999, whether you like it or not, and we must declare sovereignty over the land we control from now until May next year," says Mahdi Abdul Hadi, the director of the Jerusalem-based Palestinian Academic Society for the Study of International Affairs.

"There's going to be a lot of testing phases of who controls whom ... whose muscles are stronger. The settlers took that road to show that they're in control, and we said, 'We want to show that we have control, too.' "

Some analysts have raised the possibility that the Oslo process will never resume, Arafat will declare his state on as much land as he can next spring, most of the world will recognize it - and Netanyahu will be forced to accept it, or fight it.

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