Mideast takes a first wary step

Palestinians worked toward a cease-fire Sunday as Israel declared a Gaza pullout.

The classic formula for Middle East peacemaking is land for peace. This week, after nearly three years of conflict, Israel and the Palestinians are attempting a scaled-down version: pummeled territory for temporary truce.

In a quid pro quo intended to add momentum to a US-backed peace plan known as the road map, Israel has agreed to withdraw its forces from the Gaza Strip and militant Palestinians groups are getting ready to cease their attacks against Israelis for three months.

While the deal may yield short-term calm - at least one Israeli commentator is calling the cease-fire the end of the "1,000-day war" - a long-term peace remains as elusive as ever. Zalman Shoval, a former Israeli ambassador to the US, dismisses the idea that the cease-fire is the end of anything, or even the beginning of the end. "It's merely the beginning of the beginning," he says. The terms of this week's trade-off again suggest that Israel maintains the upper hand in this conflict and that engaging in violence has hurt the Palestinians. Should the cease-fire hold, the Israelis will get the "quiet" they have long demanded as a precursor to the resumption of substantive negotiations.

The Palestinians will get back some of what they had three years ago, when they enjoyed autonomy in the Gaza Strip and parts of the West Bank.

Should the withdrawal indeed occur - it is expected to begin Monday - the Palestinians will regain authority over a largely impoverished people hit hard by the conflict.

A crowded piece of land

In Gaza more than a million Palestinians surround Jewish enclaves that house some 7,000 Israeli settlers. The territory is a sliver of sand and densely packed humanity hemmed in by Egypt, Israel, and the Mediterranean.

Israelis know it as a source of cheap labor and of the homemade rockets and mortars that Palestinians occasionally fire at nearby Israeli communities.

During the past 33 months of strife, Gazans have accounted for roughly a third of the 2,200 Palestinians who have been killed in the conflict.

Israel has destroyed more than 12 percent of the territory's agricultural land, according to the Palestinian Center for Human Rights in Gaza City, in order to clear "security zones" on the Gaza side of the Gaza-Israel border, along roads used by settlers, and around the settlements themselves.

From the outbreak of the conflict until April 2003, Israeli forces had destroyed 1,064 buildings in Gaza, according to PCHR, most of them residential. Israel destroys Palestinian homes to punish and deter terrorist attack, as part of the creation of security zones, and in the course of strikes against Palestinian targets.

Some Israeli analysts say the cease-fire shows that Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's use of force is paying off. The Palestinians "are worse off now than they were a few years ago and this is precisely why they agreed to the [cease-fire]; they understand that there is a limit to the suffering of their people," says Efraim Inbar, a professor of political science at Bar-Ilan University outside Tel Aviv.

Mr. Shoval, a Sharon adviser, says the prime minister "can feel fairly comfortable," with the turn of events. For one, he says, "launching an active military campaign against the terrorists" appears to be working, as has Sharon's maintenance of close ties with the US administration, despite internal Israeli criticism that the Americans would ask too much of Israel in any peace plan.

'The fighting doesn't stop'

Shlomo Brom, a retired Israeli general turned researcher, says that Israel has demonstrated military superiority for many a month. But the Israeli-Palestinian clash is not a classic conflict that yields a victor and a loser, nor is it a contest, such a boxing match, where it is possible to be declared the winner. "Here there is no referee and the fighting doesn't stop, even if you win on points," he says.

Mr. Brom detects "a lack of policy that will use the achievements of the use of force to serve some kind of political vision," he adds.

Even diplomats involved in the issue say the current road map is intended simply to get the two sides to work together, leaving the larger issues to later discussion.

This strategy, of course, is the same principle that guided the peace process that fell apart when violence broke out in late September 2000. But those promoting the road map say they have no alternative but to use a baby-steps-first approach, in part because the larger issues remain so intractable.

Brom, senior research associate at the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies in Tel Aviv, doubts that Sharon is sincere about following the road map very far, especially the plan's "Phase II," which calls for the creation of a Palestinian state with provisional borders. "I have the impression that there is some sort of expectation that the Palestinians will blow [the road map] up and then we won't have to reach the next stages," he says.

Indeed, many Israelis are skeptical of the Palestinians' inclination or ability to maintain a cease-fire, in the same way that Palestinians are wary of Israeli intentions.

In partial reflection of Israel's superiority, it is the Palestinians who have had to act first. A withdrawal from Gaza would mark the first significant Israeli action toward the fulfillment of the road map.

The Palestinians already have reformed their political system in accordance with US and Israeli demands and the cease-fire amounts to the Palestinian leadership's attempt to bring about a cessation of violence, which the road map requires. But Israeli officials are reserving their right to assassinate preemptively Palestinians militants if the Palestinian Authority fails to enforce the cease-fire.

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