Israeli Army Stays On War Footing, Despite the Talks

On eve of military's withdrawal from Gaza, violence has stirred PLO militants anew

WHEN it comes to measuring Israel's commitment to peace, most Palestinians do not look to Cairo, where talks have sputtered fitfully over the past 10 days. They are more impressed by events closer to home. And two bloody attacks recently by Israeli soldiers on Palestinian militants in the occupied territories have left a particularly bitter aftertaste.

Last week, in a major operation involving hundreds of troops, the Israeli Army laid siege to a house in Hebron for 22 hours, pouring dozens of rocket propelled grenades and thousands of rounds of ammunition into it before razing the building with bulldozers. Four gunmen belonging to the radical Islamist Hamas organization, who had holed up in the house, were killed.

Jabalya's impact

The Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) said little about the attack: After all, Hamas is a declared enemy of the peace talks. But when Israeli undercover soldiers shot dead six PLO loyalists without warning in the Jabalya refugee camp in the Gaza Strip last Monday, PLO chairman Yasser Arafat reacted with desperate and angry accusations.

``We are now facing a secret organization from within the Israeli Army and the settlers,'' he charged. ``They want to destroy the [peace] solution.''

Israeli observers and most Palestinians in the occupied territories are dubious about allegations that rogue elements in the Israeli Army are deliberately trying to torpedo the peace talks with acts of provocation.

But they agree that incidents such as the Jabalya shooting occur because - on the eve of the April 13 Israeli withdrawal from the Gaza Strip - the Israeli Army is behaving as if it were not going anywhere, and PLO militants are behaving as if the Israelis had already gone.

``The Army is still acting like an Army at war,'' says Zeev Schiff, correspondent for Haaretz newspaper. ``There should have been an understanding not to enter certain places anymore.''

Soufian Abu Zeidi, a senior PLO official in Gaza, shares that view. ``Israel's political leaders talk about peace, but Israeli military leaders talk about war,'' he complains. ``That means that soldiers in Gaza behave with no attention to the peace process.''

At the same time, the six Fatah Hawks - armed young militants of Mr. Arafat's mainstream faction of the PLO - invited confusion by openly carrying their weapons when they were killed.

With hostile Hamas gunmen also on the streets of Gaza, such incidents ``are inevitable when so many people are running around with guns, and you cannot tell who is on your side and who is against you,'' commented Orri Orr, chairman of the Knesset (parliament) defense and foreign affairs committee.

Last week's Hebron siege, however, was of a different order - the result of a two-year-old Israeli policy of going after wanted men from a distance, with heavy weaponry, which has destroyed or damaged over 200 houses in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, according to the Palestinian human rights group Al Haq.

The thinking behind this approach is ``the protection of our own soldiers, so they do not have to endanger their lives by hand-to-hand combat,'' says Israeli Army spokesman Danny Seaman.

Logic for approach

Privately, however, military officials acknowledge that massive overkill operations also have the advantage of scaring Palestinians and deterring them from sheltering wanted men.

Such operations are expected to continue in the West Bank whenever Israeli intelligence finds Hamas safe houses. As the Army prepares to withdraw after a 27-year occupation, however, the situation in Gaza is more complex.

``Whoever thinks that in this kind of gray situation ... one side can go around with weapons and the other side won't shoot is wrong,'' says General Orr, now a reserve officer.

The undercover unit, disguised as Palestinians, that killed the Fatah Hawks on Monday ``operated according to standard procedure'' when it opened fire on armed men distributing leaflets, according to an Army spokesman.

Open fire regulations allow Israeli soldiers to shoot without warning on sight at any armed Palestinian.

To Bassam Eid, a fieldworker with the Israeli human rights group B'Tselem, the attack ``looked like a planned operation, but it is very difficult to tell.''

On the other hand, Hanna Siniora, publisher of the independent Palestinian weekly, Jerusalem Times, believes it more likely that ``the soldiers shot out of a fear of being hit. They were jittery, tense, trigger-happy, and unsure of themselves.''

At the same time, he suggests, the Israeli soldiers may have been seeking to settle accounts with their old enemy before they are obliged to pull out of Gaza. ``These undercover units are execution squads,'' he says. ``Some of them are just killers, and it is not beyond them.''

`Certain coordination'

After Israel recognized the PLO last September, there was a certain coordination between the Israeli Army and Fatah gunmen in Gaza; many Fatah men surrendered and were immediately released, allowed to carry a weapon discreetly for self defense.

At the same time, ``De facto, the Israeli Army stayed away from places'' where armed Fatah men were operating, according to Mr. Abu Zeidi, head of Fatah's liaison team with the Israeli Army.

That sort of coordination broke down, however, after soldiers killed a leading Fatah figure just days after he had surrendered and been freed. Though the Israelis insisted his death was a mistake, Palestinians saw it as an assassination that undermined any trust in the Army.

In the wake of last Monday's killings, ``It is difficult now to talk about cooperation between Israeli soldiers and Fatah,'' says Abu Zeidi.

But Israeli military experts expect contacts to resume, even if secretly. ``Both sides will realize next week that something has to be done,'' Mr. Schiff says. ``Otherwise more people are going to get killed.''

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