With peace gone, Israel takes land

The Israeli army yesterday retook part of the Gaza Strip in the first land seizure since the 1993 Oslo accord.

In 1967, the Israelis seized a densely populated Palestinian territory called the Gaza Strip from Egypt. In 1994, they ceded most of it to the Palestinians.

But what the Israelis gave, they have - in part - taken back.

On Monday night and early Tuesday morning, the residents of the Gaza Strip experienced perhaps the most elaborate Israeli reprisal raids of the current Palestinian uprising - six hours of tank shelling, helicopter attacks, machine-gun fire, and missile explosions that killed a Palestinian policeman and left dozens wounded.

When it was over, Israeli soldiers remained in control of several pieces of land in the northern part of Gaza, which is home to more than a million Palestinians. The seizure was the first such act since Israel and the Palestinians initiated their peace process in 1993.

Coming a day after the Israeli Air Force bombed a Syrian radar post in Lebanon, one lesson of the Gaza seizure is that Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has not changed his stripes. In pounding the Palestinians and striking the Syrians, the former general is proving true to his own history, in which he has rarely shied away from the militant prosecution of Israel's interests.

Election campaign images casting Mr. Sharon as a sort of benevolent grandfather are fading into obscurity. "It's not a kinder, gentler environment that Israel is facing right now," explains Dore Gold, an adviser to the prime minister on foreign policy.

Under Israeli-Palestinian peace accords, most of Gaza is in the control of the Palestinian Authority, except for several relatively spacious enclaves where a few thousand Jewish settlers raise vegetables and rely on the Israeli military to guard them from attack.

Israeli officials say the reoccupation is only intended to stop Palestinians from firing mortars into Israeli towns near Gaza. On Monday night, mortar shells struck a town just a few miles from Sharon's ranch in the Negev Desert, a haven he sometimes calls his "melon patch."

Israeli officials say they seized the very land from which Palestinian militants were launching mortars. The Israel Defense Forces, according to an official statement, "has no intention to conquer [areas under exclusive Palestinian control], and at the end of the operation, the IDF will leave the area."

Lebanon likeness

Similar rationales were offered and promises made when Israel invaded Lebanon in 1982, but it wasn't until last year that the Israeli withdrawal was completed. Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak said yesterday that Israel's strike against the Syrian radar reminded him of that invasion, noting that Sharon then served Israel as defense minister.

There is no doubt that Israelis are feeling vulnerable. The pullout from southern Lebanon has not stopped the Hizbullah group from attacking Israeli soldiers patrolling the Israel-Lebanon border. One such attack prompted the airstrike on the Syrian position in Lebanon this week.

More than six months of open conflict between Palestinians and Israeli security forces, along with several bombings aimed at Israelis, has worsened latent anxieties. The Hatzofe daily newspaper reported this week that "some 83 percent of Israelis worry that they or one of their relatives might be hurt in a terror attack."

And the prospect that Palestinians with Israeli citizenship, also known as Israeli Arabs, could turn against their fellow citizens remains deeply troubling. Israel's most popular daily, Yedioth Ahronoth, yesterday published a letter it said was written by Abdul Malik Dehamshe, an Israeli Arab member of parliament.

Addressed to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, it called the Israeli strike on the Syrian radar post "a criminal attack of the fascist Israeli government ... This event makes Arab unity necessary, in order to put an end to the extreme actions of Israel."

But the collapse in relations between Israel and the Palestinians, the renewed tension across the northern border, and anxieties over Israeli Arab loyalties haven't cropped up out of nowhere. They follow years of Palestinian frustration with peace negotiations that bore them little tangible fruit, decades of shared hostility between Israel and its northern neighbors, and long-running complaints that Israeli Arabs hold only second-class citizenship in the Jewish state.

Israeli strategy

Sharon won a crushing electoral mandate by promising to restore security and downplaying whatever plans he may have to address the root causes of the unrest and instability. Indeed, with regard to the Palestinians, he seems intent on forcing Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat to blink first.

Mr. Gold, echoing similar statements from Israeli officials, sees "early signs that Mr. Arafat is understanding that his entire strategy has failed." Gold says such a recognition is necessary - along with a complete cessation of violence - before Israel will return to negotiations over the core issues that separate the two.

In the view of Sharon and his aides, the intifada is a calculated resort to violence and not the byproduct of a flawed peace process, as Palestinians claim. So far, 472 people have died as a result of Israeli-Palestinian violence, including three Palestinians who were killed in separate incidents yesterday in Gaza and the West Bank.

Palestinian Cabinet minister Nabeel Amro wonders just what "strategy" the Israelis think Arafat is pursuing. "I don't know how Yasser Arafat evaluates the results of this period," he says of the intifada, "but I am sure that he wants the resumption of the negotiations ... and to put an end to the cycle of violence."

The Palestinians have endorsed an Egyptian-Jordanian proposal to bring the two sides together, as Mr. Amro notes, but the Israelis have rejected it because it does not meet Sharon's minimum requirement: that violence ends before talks resume.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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