Small steps to revive some trust

Senior Palestinian and Israeli officials resumed preliminary talks Wednesday.

Israelis and Palestinians are taking steps toward loosening the Gordian knot of attack and retribution that binds them in their ongoing conflict. Senior officials met in Athens yesterday to discuss ways of ending the violence, and an Israeli spokesman said security chiefs were to meet Wednesday evening, perhaps at the US ambassador's home near Tel Aviv.

These developments come after weeks of intensifying violence and a day after Israeli helicopter gunships hammered sites in the Gaza Strip following a Palestinian mortar attack that critically injured an Israeli baby.

But restoring the trust required for security cooperation will be enormously difficult, a challenge symbolized by the massive concrete barriers the Israeli army lowered into place three weeks ago to divide the joint-security bases where Palestinian and Israeli forces had been working together. "We don't even talk to each other any more," says an Israeli soldier at a base in northern Gaza. "This will make us feel safer," he says, gesturing to the blocks, which cast deep shadows across the courtyard.

The idea of joint security, set out in the 1993 Oslo accord, is that soldiers from both sides work side by side to protect Israel. It is an integral part of the land-for-peace equation that anchors the peace process: Palestinians help ensure Israeli safety, and Israel withdraws from Palestinian territories it occupied in 1967.

Both sides feel they have been let down. Israelis now say the Palestinian Authority is behind attacks on Israel, while the Palestinians say Israel never held to its side of the bargain. Indeed, the construction and expansion of Israeli settlements on Palestinian lands has continued unabated during the Oslo process.

"We were giving them security in the West Bank and Gaza Strip before the intifada, we were doing our share, but the Israelis were doing the opposite," says Osama Musa, chairman of the Regional Security Commission in the Gaza Strip, sitting on the Palestinian side of the base.

"I don't care what they're doing," he adds, gesturing with contempt at the cement barriers. "It was a great idea, but now all the cooperation is finished."

Restoring trust poses the toughest hurdle to rebuilding security cooperation. One foreshadowing of the intifada came when a Palestinian soldier shot his Israeli security partner in late September. Israel suspended actual cooperation in November, despite Palestinian protests, after a bomb planted in a joint security base killed an Israeli officer.

Security cooperation depends in large part on forming ties between Israeli and Palestinian security forces. The 10 stations scattered across the Palestinian territories were arranged to facilitate that.

Each base is built around a central courtyard, with the Palestinians on one side and the Israelis on the other. Both sides have an equal number of soldiers and the commanders are of equal rank.

At the base, or District Coordination Office (DCO) in northern Gaza, the Israeli commander, Lieut. Col. Zidan Mustafa, and his Palestinian counterpart, Salem Darduna, met every morning for coffee until cooperation began to unravel with the intifada.

"It was like family," says Colonel Mustafa. Today they continue to speak on the phone, but meet far less often. "It is a cold relationship now," he says. "There is much more suspicion, and definite disappointment."

Darduna, speaking at his office elsewhere in Gaza, uses the word betrayal.

Both recall the optimism and energy when they first began cooperating, describing how they would iron out disagreements by referring to an English translation of the Oslo accord as "our Bible," says Mustafa.

"We didn't see everything through pink glasses," he adds over the sound of a bubbling fish tank in his office. Sometimes weapons were pointed in anger, he allows, "but even brothers fight."

Today, Mustafa believes that Darduna has been unable to control violence in and around the DCO because the Palestinian Authority is orchestrating it from above. And Darduna, a heavyset man who was a Palestinian fighter in Syria and Lebanon, argues that Mustafa is compromised as a work partner because he is part of the Israeli army.

"The Israeli army has no morals, no military standards," Darduna says, as he adjusts a camouflage-color cellphone on his belt. "They kill children, cut down trees and houses, and do many things under the guise of security."

Despite the ill will, Darduna says security cooperation has to resume, while Mustafa says continued communication is crucial. "We have to maintain communication, even if we are not cooperating, because that's the only way we'll have peace," he says.

Now there are signs that the bitter impasse between the two sides could ease and security cooperation resume. The Athens meeting between Foreign Minister Shimon Peres and Palestinian cabinet minister Nabil Shaath, brokered by the European Union, represents the first high-level contacts in at least two months.

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has repeatedly stated he will not negotiate while "Palestinian violence" continues, and Israeli officials were careful to stress that the Athens consultations did not involve peace talks.

But Mr. Sharon's son, Omri, reportedly met with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat on Sunday. And Palestinian information minister Yasser Abed Rabbo told a Palestinian publication that a senior delegation may soon travel to Washington, where Palestinian-Israeli talks could take place with American participation.

Though the Bush administration has signaled a more hands-off Mideast policy than the Clinton team, Secretary of State Colin Powell reportedly brokered the planned security cooperation talks.

The discussions to resume security cooperation come at a time of intensifying violence. A conflict that had been marked principally by exchanges of stones, bullets, molotov cocktails, and tear gas now typically involves mortar shells, tank fire, and missile attacks. Since the fighting began in September, 458 people have been killed, including 375 Palestinians, 64 Israeli Jews and 19 others.

This week the Israelis have shown new determination to enter what is known as "Area A" - the parts of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip that are supposedly under the exclusive control of the Palestinian Authority. On Sunday night, Israeli special forces entered Area A territory near Ramallah to arrest members of Force 17, a Palestinian security unit that the Israelis say is responsible for attacks on civilians. Monday night, Israeli soldiers, tanks, and bulldozers again entered Area A territory in Gaza to demolish a Force 17 outpost.

And after a six-week lull, Israel has also revived its tactic of executing Palestinians they accuse of bombings and other attacks against Israel. On Tuesday, Israeli soldiers used helicopter-borne missiles to kill a member of the militant group Islamic Jihad as he drove in the Gaza Strip.

Palestinians, meanwhile, appear equally determined to raise the cost of occupation for the Israeli army and settlers. Palestinian snipers killed one Israeli soldier near Nablus on Sunday and another soldier on Monday during a fierce firefight in the West Bank town of Bethlehem.

On Tuesday, Palestinians lobbed mortar shells into an Israeli settlement in the Gaza Strip, gravely injuring a 1-year-old baby. The strike brought a withering retaliation from Israeli helicopters and tanks; Palestinians say more than 70 people were injured in reprisal raids.

Yesterday, Palestinians again launched mortars into an Israeli settlement in Gaza, and the Israeli military used its own mortars - it says for the first time against Palestinians - to shell Force 17 positions.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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