Report offers a way out of unrest

The report, by former US Sen. George Mitchell, calls for Israel to stop building settlements.

A set of recommendations by an American-led visiting committee is emerging as the latest best hope for Israelis and Palestinians to put down their arms and stones and return to the negotiating table.

The report of the committee, headed by former US Sen. George Mitchell, sets out various measures the two sides can take to stop the violence and restore their confidence in each other.

But while the Palestinians have embraced the plan, the Israelis say their reaction is "positive" but they have some reservations.

Taken alongside positive assessments from US Secretary of State Colin Powell, UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, and European leaders, the response to the Mitchell committee's work suggests it may offer a face-saving way out after nearly eight months of violence.

Nabil Shaath, a top Palestinian official, doesn't sound too worried about the lack of a wholehearted Israeli endorsement. "If there is a consensus around the Mitchell report as the only way out," he says, "I'm sure the Americans and the Europeans and the other parties will exert their influence."

Even so, the tenor of conflict, which has killed 526 people so far, continues to worsen. Last week, a 4-month-old Palestinian baby in Gaza was killed by shrapnel from an Israeli tank shell, and days later, two Jewish teenagers were beaten to death near an Israeli settlement in the West Bank.

On Monday night, Israeli forces launched missile attacks against targets associated with the Palestinian security forces in the Gaza Strip, apparently in retaliation for a landmine explosion on the Gaza-Israel border that killed two Romanian workers repairing an Israeli border fence.

The bodies of five Palestinian policemen were found dumped in a hole in the West Bank Monday in what one Palestinian official called a "massacre." Israeli officials initially said their forces opened fire on "suspicious figures," but now have recanted and are investigating.

The reactions of Israeli and Palestinian leaders to the Mitchell report seem to reflect a shift of momentum that has occurred since the Palestinian uprising, or intifada, began late last September.

In December, as the two sides began a last-ditch effort to resolve the main issues that fuel their conflict, it seemed as if the intifada was bearing fruit for Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat.

His Israeli counterpart, then-Prime Minister Ehud Barak, was softening his negotiating stance, moving further to meet Palestinian demands than he had at US-mediated talks held at Camp David last summer.

Several attempts to reach a peace treaty during the final weeks of Mr. Barak's tenure failed, and since then much has changed. Barak's successor, Sharon, is a hard-liner who will brook no negotiation until violence ceases, and who says a final peace agreement with the Palestinians is unworkable for the time being.

So where the Palestinians once found their position enhanced by the unrest, they now seem a little more desperate to sue for peace. Sharon's stern tactics - including blunt-edged military incursions into areas nominally under control of the Palestinian Authority - may be paying off.

The first of these mini-invasions prompted international censure, but nowadays they seem almost routine, as do Israeli attacks on individual Palestinian figures. The Palestinians call these attacks "assassinations," but Israel says they are preemptive strikes against those bent on harming Israel.

Mr. Arafat is also feeling a different sort of encroachment, in that many analysts say his authority and credibility are withering as the intifada wears on.

"The authority of the PA [Palestinian Authority] is being undermined by these developments," says Ghassan Khatib, who heads the Jerusalem Media and Communications Center, a Palestinian consulting and advocacy group. Where Arafat's PA was once the central - if not the only - pillar of Palestinian governance, "there seems to be a process of undoing what has been done" as opposition groups vie for popular support.

The Palestinian leader's central concern, adds political scientist Ali Jarbawi of Bir Zeit University in the West Bank, is "how to retain his position while he's losing credibility here and [internationally]." A resumption of peace talks with Israel could shore up Arafat's position.

The Mitchell plan mainly calls for a climbdown, without getting into the heart of the issues between Israel and the Palestinians, such as the rights of Palestinian refugees or the territorial makeup of a future Palestinian state.

It calls on the Israelis to pull back to pre-intifada positions and for the Palestinians to resume cooperating with Israel on security matters. It asks the two sides to return to the implementation of earlier agreements.

The one new element prescribed by the Mitchell committee - an immediate Israeli agreement not to expand any Jewish settlement in Palestinian areas or build any new settlements - is one of the two items to which the Israelis object. (The other is the report's criticism of the Israeli military for using disproportionate force against Palestinians.)

The Palestinians have enthusiastically highlighted this settlement-freeze provision. Mr. Shaath, a frequent negotiator for the Palestinian side, even concedes that the Palestinians erred in not pressing earlier for such a freeze.

Seen historically, Israel's settlement policy has had a remarkable impact - roughly 5 percent of Israel's population lives on land that the country seized by force in 1967, in contravention of international law. In recent months Israeli officials have announced plans to expand some settlements, even though many of the communities have plenty of empty units, housing prices are falling, and some settlers have left their communities for the safety of Israel proper.

Even though Foreign Minister Shimon Peres and other Israeli officials have said that it is impossible to stop a settlement from building, say, a new kindergarten, it's conceivable that international pressure might convince them to change their minds.

That would give Palestinian leaders something to hold up as a reason to return to the table, although there is no way to know whether most Palestinians and increasingly popular militant groups would support such a decision.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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