Mideast cease-fire shows limits

Four Palestinians and an Israeli soldier died during a raid Friday; fighting also heated up with Hizbullah.

In the most serious incident since Palestinians declared a cease-fire six weeks ago, Israeli troops surged into Askar refugee camp near Nablus Friday to make arrests. Four Palestinians, two of them Hamas militants, died, as did an Israeli soldier.

The ensuing mass funerals in Nablus echoed with cries for revenge, and Palestinian militants fired a rocket at a Jewish settlement in the Gaza Strip. To many observers, it seemed like a return to the bad old days - three years of bloodletting.

Violence also returned to Israel's northern border Sunday as anti aircraft shells fired by Iranian-inspired Hizbullah fighters in Lebanon killed an Israeli teenager in the northern town of Shlomi, the first such fatality since Israeli forces withdrew from Lebanon three years ago. In response, Israeli aircraft attacked suspected Hizbullah positions in southern Lebanon.

The fresh conflict between Israel and Palestinian militants crystallizes a bitter dispute that has been simmering despite the marked reduction in violence this summer.

Palestinians say Israel has taken no real steps to improve the lives of residents of the occupied territories, thereby crippling the fledgling government of moderate Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas. Israel says the Palestinians have failed to address the road map's requirement that they disarm and dismantle Hamas and other militias.

"If they want Israel to tolerate the rebuilding of a terrorist threat and terrorist actions against it they are making a mistake," says Dore Gold, an adviser to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. "They are dealing with a country that will defend itself and not be a doormat."

Continuing operations

Mr. Sharon's approach means, analysts say, that despite the Palestinian-declared cease-fire, Israel will continue to carry out operations such as the raid in Askar refugee camp.

"The army will always have the excuse that there is an immediate threat of a bombing and it has to act," says Reuven Pedhazur, a political scientist at Tel Aviv University. "Maybe this is the case, and maybe it is not."

Analysts say the Askar incident does not appear to spell immediate danger for the cease-fire. But its long-term implications could be more ominous for the truce and the international peace blueprint known as the road map.

Army officers say the foray into Askar was necessitated because the two slain Hamas fighters were readying for a bombing within Israel "in the coming days," something that would have marked a departure from Hamas's abstinence from bombing attacks throughout the cease-fire. The other Palestinians died during protests after the shoot-out - one from tear-gas inhalation, the other from rubber-coated metal bullet - according to Palestinian sources.

Israeli officers say an enormous explosion ensued after troops fired an antitank missile at the site, proving it was a bomb factory.

One-way cease-fire

Israel Radio reported that the army chief of staff Moshe Yaalon, stressed to the cabinet that Israel is not a partner to the Palestinian arrangement and retains "freedom of action" in areas which have not been transferred to the Palestinian Authority (PA), including most of the West Bank.

Senior army officers say Hamas and other militias are using the cease-fire to rebuild their strength and charge Hamas with using its cover to refine a home-made rocket it has used against Israeli targets, thus far with no fatalities.

Hamas claimed responsibility for a rocket attack against a Jewish settlement in southern Gaza late Saturday for which six Israelis were treated for shock. Mahmoud Zahar, a Hamas leader, stressed: "There is no change in our position toward the cease-fire, but as our military wing has said we have the right to defend ourselves by all means. If the Israelis continue their aggression, they should expect it will weaken the cease-fire."

Israeli officials point the finger at the Palestinian Authority for not taking steps against the militant groups. "If the Palestinians were taking care of security, Israel would not have to do these [raids]," Mr. Gold said of the Askar incident.

He stresses that the road map explicitly calls for weapons confiscation and the "dismantlement of terrorist capabilities and infrastructure."

The PA views the truce very differently. It maintains that it deserves credit for getting Hamas to stop attacks. And it fears that more raids like the one in Askar could provoke Hamas into going back to suicide bombings. "The Israelis have to think about what they are doing. We don't want them to blow up the whole truce," says Elias Zananiri, spokesman for the Palestinian Ministry of Security Affairs.

He says that the PA cannot disarm and dismantle the militias during the cease-fire, since it would trigger a civil war. Instead, Mr. Zananiri says, the PA is trying to negotiate an extension of the three-month truce.

"What counts in the end is the result, that there is calm and no attacks on Israel. Our method is that the longer the truce and the cease-fire last, the more difficult it will be for factions to return to attacks. The idea is to make the truce popular." But, he says, Israel is undermining that by failing to ease strictures and improve life in the occupied territories or halt settlement building.

Little progress on settlements

Despite a road map requirement to dismantle settlement outposts created since Sharon took office in 2001, Israel has allowed eight new ones to be built in place of eight that were removed, according to the Israeli group Peace Now.

Mr. Pedhatzur, the Tel Aviv University analyst, declines to specify the survival chances of the cease-fire. "I think [Army chief of staff] Yaalon and [Defense Minister Shaul] Mofaz do not want to break it for the time being." But, he added, the top brass is very frustrated by Hamas rebuilding.

"One bombing could be the end," he says.

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