Small steps to shore up Mideast cease-fire

In a valley where crossfire was frequent, there is a sign of cease-fire optimism: rebuilding.

Six months ago, after Israeli forces blasted bullets through every window of his apartment, flecked the ceiling of his living room with shrapnel, and shot a finger-size hole through the headboard of his bed, Nashat Siman got his family out of the West Bank town of Beit Jala.

Today Mr. Siman, his wife, and their two daughters are back in their apartment, a fresh coat of paint on the walls, unbroken glass in the window frames, and a new, unpunctured water tank on the roof.

The Simans' return home is only a partial sign of confidence in the Israeli-Palestinian cease-fire. Brokered by the US with European support, the peacemaking has merely slowed the pace of violence, not stopped it. Bombs or bullets have killed at least 14 people since the truce was signed June 13.

The cease-fire has featured matching accusations of bad faith. The Israelis say the Palestinians are refusing to arrest militants responsible for violence against Israel. The Palestinians say the

Israelis are maintaining a chokehold on their lives that does little to calm the situation. But visits to two communities that have been the scenes of frequent firefights over the past nine months indicate a slight difference in the mood-o-meter: The Palestinians seem more ready to put faith in the cease-fire and the diplomacy surrounding it than do their Israeli neighbors.

"We are not confident, but we are hopeful," says Johnny Siman, a candlemaker who lives in the same building as his cousin Nashat.

Beit Jala sits across a valley from the neighborhood of Gilo, a settlement built on land seized in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war that Israel considers a suburb of Jerusalem. Since October, Palestinian gunmen have taken advantage of the geography to fire on Gilo, drawing copious return fire from Israeli soldiers stationed there.

Nine months of these exchanges have left five people dead in Beit Jala; no one has been killed in Gilo. Overall, 499 people on the Palestinian side have been killed and 117 on the Israeli side.

"Everyone is 100 percent sure that the cease-fire will break down and the war will start again," says an Israeli soldier serving in Gilo who asked that her name not be used.

The Palestinian Authority may not have arrested the militants that Israel feels should be behind bars, but the PA has taken tangible steps to ensure that the cease-fire holds, at least in Beit Jala and nearby Bethlehem. Here the PA is funding reconstruction of damaged buildings and has offered assurances that the gunmen will not use Beit Jala as a vantage point.

To shore up the cease-fire, the PA has invited European officials to help implement the accord.

These measures are behind the Simans' decision, however fearful and tentative, to return to their apartment. "They have said they will not shoot from the houses," Nashat Siman says, referring to PA promises that the gunmen will desist. "That's why we are putting our funds into reconstruction." The PA is funding most of the work, but Siman is paying for the paint job himself.

Elias al-Atrash, whose family owns Bethlehem's Paradise Hotel, says the high-level diplomacy is a source of encouragement. "If the European Union, the Americans, and the United Nations send high-level officials to solve the problem," he says, "we believe in some way that this will be a binding cease-fire that will lead to an agreement not to use heavy weapons against civilians."

Israeli forces shelled the hotel in April, destroying numerous rooms on the hotel's upper floors, but workers are installing the scaffolding that will enable repairs. Rashid al-Jaabari, governor of the Bethlehem area, says the PA will fund the cost of the reconstruction.

Across the valley in Gilo, the mood is more somber. Here, people are grateful for a few days of peace, but no one seems inclined to believe the cease-fire will last or turn into some sort of political engagement. The Israel Defence Forces says there has been no shooting across the valley since May 24. Elsewhere, however, there have been shootings, bombings, mortar firings, and home demolitions despite the June 13 cease-fire.

"As long as people are shooting at soldiers or Israelis," says Eli Nizri, an unemployed young man sitting on the curb outside a synagogue, "I don't feel there is a cease-fire."

Arie Tenenbaum, a retired employee of Israel's military, takes a minute to show a visitor where a piece of Palestinian shrapnel put a chink in his stone windowsill. "The cease-fire is now," he shrugs. "In another couple of days, who knows?"

Two young women, waiting for a ride on the main road that rings the community, shake their heads when asked for their assessment. "We don't believe in the cease-fire. The shooting will start again," says Sima Entebbe, relating how the sister of a friend was wounded in the chest by a bullet as she passed in front of a window last December.

She points out the cement barricades that the Israeli army has erected to protect Gilo's roads from Palestinian gunfire, some painted with murals depicting the blocked view. These things make her feel afraid, Ms. Entebbe says.

It doesn't seem as if anyone in Gilo is taking down the sandbags that protect their windows, unless they are installing bulletproof glass. But the soldier, whose work is to help fortify homes in Gilo, says the number of people asking to have their windows sandbagged has declined from "tons" to six or seven a day.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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