Israeli raid fails to derail West Bank calm ... so far

Palestinian militants vow retaliation after this weekend's killing of three suspected militants in the West Bank city of Nablus, but residents there say that economic revival will curb the desire for revenge.

By , Correspondent

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    Israeli soldiers to take positions during a raid in the West Bank city of Nablus on Saturday.
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The year-and-a-half détente between Israeli forces and Palestinians in the West Bank was strained this weekend after Israeli soldiers killed three suspected militants who were wanted for shooting dead an Israeli motorist.

The first incursion of Israeli forces in Nablus in months hurt the prestige of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, the US-backed leader who has been cooperating with Israel to reassert Palestinian control in West Bank cities. The Jerusalam Post reported that two of the dead Palestinians had ties to Palestinian nationalist militias with ties to Mr. Abbas' Fatah movement.

"Israel tried to embarrass the Palestinian Authority and its president," complained Husam Khader, a Palestinian legislator who visited a mourning tent for one of the gunmen killed. "Palestinians now the view the PA'' as an Israeli lackey.

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The anger is palpable. Newly printed martyrdom posters are again ubiquitous in Nablus's Old City and downtown, while tens of thousands of angry mourners over the weekend called for revenge and an end to cooperation between the Israeli and Palestinian security forces.

A new wave of violence would threaten prospects for resurrecting peace negotiations and undermine an economic revival throughout the West Bank this year. But for all the frustration, the calm appears more robust than the desire to retaliate.

"There is a fear of going backward," says Ghazi Najav, who owns a home decoration shop. The relative calm of recent years has bolstered a sense of personal and economic security, he says."We don't have a military compatible with Israel. I don't want to see more Palestinian young men die."

How the weekend violence began

The flare up began on Thursday evening, when a gunmen opened fire on an Israeli car en route to a settlement near Nablus, killing Rabbi Meir Hai. Within two days, Israel dispatched undercover agents and soldiers to Nablus to pursue the attack suspects.

The sight of Israeli soldiers back inside the city startled residents, and PA officials like Khader were frustrated because Israel called the incursion on its own without coordinating with the Palestinian security forces.

In a city where Palestinian militants once roamed freely with guns and spurred chaos, today gunmen seem to have vanished. The turnaround has been helped by an amnesty program by the Israeli military and an effort by the Palestinian Authority to include former militants into the ranks of the Palestinian security forces. It's also been helped by US-supervised training of Palestinian security forces. Israeli military officers have praised the Palestinians for improvement, and security cooperation is thought to be better than ever. But this program has its limits.

At the mourning tent for Annan Soboh, relatives recounted how soldiers ordered women and children out of their homes before they went into the house this weekend to kill the man they suspected of weapons dealing. Israel claims Mr. Soboh was given a chance to surrender. Soboh was part of the amnesty program with the Israeli military.

"The PA insisted that everyone stop the resistance," against Israel, Soboh's brother Fareed said. "Now they are the ones in an awkward situation."

The PA put its stamp on the mourning reception, whch was held at a union hall where a gigantic poster of Abbas was draped down the side of the building. Hamas and rival Fatah politicians embraced one another at the tent.

Fareed Soboh says that with settlers targeting Palestinian towns for vigilante attacks and a stalemate in peace talks, economic prosperity alone won't satisfy Palestinian aspirations.

"Last week the PA was talking about making a better economy," he said. "But during the funeral people were calling for revenge."

A 'grave' incident

Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak called the Thursday shooting attack a "grave" incident, and warned of a potential escalation. And yet Israel's military did not tighten up barriers to travel in the region.

Earlier this year, the Israeli army agreed to lift barriers to Palestinian movement around the West Bank, a decision that gave the Palestinian economy some flexibility and contributed to growth of 7 percent. But after the attack, many Jewish settlers are arguing for a tightening of travel restrictions.

The attacks come at a vulnerable time for Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu, who is trying to enforce a settlement freeze unpopular with his ideological backers. If Palestinian warnings of an escalation in violence comes to pass, the 10-month settlement freeze demanded by the US could be suspended.

But a Jewish settler resident in the area said that he was satisfied with the Israeli response. The retaliatory killing have calmed the atmosphere on the Israeli side, said the settler, who refused to give his name.

A group of four former members of the Al-Aqsa Brigades sit on the step of a storefront in downtown Nablus. They have given up their weapons and taken a job with the Palestinian security forces. The talk of a new outbreak of violence is bluster, they agree.

Their former militias do not exist any more after the Palestinian Authority cracked down on gunmen.

"In this age, we do nothing," said former militant Abu Bohorein. "We have gone legit. People are angry, but the talk about revenge is just talk."

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