When small misunderstandings become huge roadblocks to peace

In the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, rumor often overrides reality, asin Bethlehem now.

Right now, the Israeli military checkpoint at the entrance to this is little more than a soldiers' post. When Israeli officials recently announced plans to make it more than that, however, the gateway to this Palestinian town in the West Bank became a flash point of tension between the two sides.

Yet at the root of it all may be something that crops up all too often in the struggle to find a lasting peace here: misunderstanding. It appears the checkpoint plans may be little more than a road-widening project.

On the one hand, many Palestinians think that Israel is making the checkpoint similar to the Erez crossing point between Israel and the Gaza Strip. Erez is something of an international border crossing - complete with passport registration for foreign visitors, X-ray machines, and strictly enforced rules about which Palestinians are allowed to come in and out. The West Bank, meanwhile, is demarcated from Israel by much more porous lines, and any Palestinian who wants to enter from here can use an endless number of back roads to skirt the checkpoints.

Israeli officials, on the other hand, say they are simply enlarging the checkpoint to alleviate the regular traffic jams that build up at the two-lane guard post, a problem that both sides have long complained about because it holds up busloads of pilgrims coming to visit the birthplace of Jesus. A flood of tourists are expected to ring in the millennium here.

So far, no evidence exists to suggest that Israel actually is building an "Erez II" in Bethlehem. There are no plans to change any procedures to Palestinians traveling through the checkpoint, and similar roadblocks outside other major West Bank cities are not slated for any renovations.

It appears to be a case of misunderstanding ruling the day. As happens time and again, rumor overrides reality, and misperceptions beget mini-crises that will likely continue to arise as the two peoples edge toward a final peace agreement.

The difficulties with being on the same page run from the highest levels of government to the most mundane levels of Israeli- Palestinian coexistence. American officials complain they often have a difficult job of bringing together the two sides at the right moment: Israelis like to hash it out in person and speak frankly; Palestinians consider it rude to have to say "no" to someone's face and prefer to meet once the deal is almost done.

A tendency to assume the worst about the other side is prevalent on both ends of the Israeli-Palestinian equation. When Palestinians recently began participating in a land reclamation project, allowing struggling West Bank farmers to cultivate fallow land with financial and technical expertise from the United Nations Development Program, Jewish settlers claimed that the Palestinians were on a crusade to wildly expand their land holdings ahead of the "final status" peace talks.

One Jerusalem tabloid ran a story claiming that the UN was helping Palestinians grab Israeli land throughout the West Bank. Local newspapers on both sides, in fact, are often used as vehicles for those with an interest in stirring up fears.

Gilad Sher, who was until recently the chief negotiator for Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak's, says misunderstanding was at the root of why talks on implementing the Wye River accord dragged for many weeks this summer.

"The main issue until the very end was a lack of understanding of what we mean by a 'framework agreement," says Mr. Sher. "In the normal course of negotiations, there will always be a certain amount of misunderstanding which may be caused by differences in language, cultural differences, and political differences."

If Palestinians and Israelis were often missing each other's points around the negotiating table, that tendency is even more common among average people. "There is a a certain distance between the leaders and the people on the street, and there is always a certain gap between these two publics. One is governing and is not always connected to what the people are thinking, so it all adds to the misunderstanding."

Even as Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak, Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, and President Clinton met in Oslo, this week to renew their commitment to reaching a final peace deal and to commemorate the late Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin - assassinated four years ago today - students at Bethlehem University said they intended to continue to stage protests as long as the Israelis go ahead with their checkpoint renovation plans.

"If they continue building a second Erez, there will continue to be marches and demonstrations," says Issa Zawahreh, a student leader at the university. He says they will also hand out fliers to tourists and address buses of pilgrims. "We want tell that tourists what's going on, and explain that we can't move from Bethlehem to Jerusalem."

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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