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Peace Accord Could Be Victim of Frustration

Violence: Palestinian anger at lack of progress in talks boils over. Israeli fears of facing armed force come true.


JERUSALEM — The two days of pitched gun battles between Palestinian police and Israeli soldiers that have left at least 55 dead and 1,000 wounded are the result of Palestinian frustration over Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's slowdown in peacemaking.

But now the armed combat--some of the worst fighting in the West Bank since Israel conquered the territory in the 1967 Mideast War--has thrown the very survival of the Israeli-Palestinian peace agreements into question.

Long before the fighting broke out Wednesday, Palestinians had grown convinced that three years of peace negotiations with Israel were marching steadily backward in three months of Netanyahu's government.

By the time Netanyahu authorized the opening of an archeological tunnel early Tuesday on the edge of Jerusalem's Temple Mount--the third holiest shrine in Islam--Palestinian anger had reached a boil.

"This was the straw that broke the camel's back," said Ahmad Tibi, an advisor on Israel to Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat. "When you eliminate any shred of hope the Palestinians may have and push them into a corner . . . this is the result."

The result came about because the historic accords in which Israel and the Palestinians committed themselves to peacefully resolving their decades-old conflict are coming undone.

Israel sent tanks and helicopters into West Bank cities for the first time since handing over most of the area to Palestinian rule. The Palestinian Authority reverted to referring to its casualties as "martyrs," resuming the language of the intifada, as the 1987-1993 uprising against Israeli occupation was called.

The trust built up between the two sides over the last three years broke down. Palestinians watched their shabab--their young--carried into hospitals by the dozens with head and chest wounds that told them that the Israelis had been shooting to kill, even more so than during the intifada, when soldiers aimed at their foes' legs.

Israelis, meanwhile, saw their worst fears about the peace process realized in the bloody firefights: Now, instead of facing young stone-throwers in the intifada, their soldiers battled armed Palestinian police--a virtual army.

Israeli soldiers and Palestinian security forces--who had been sharing intelligence and patrolling jointly in recent months--were again firing weapons at each other.

"This is an entirely new situation," said Zeev Schiff, military affairs analyst for the daily newspaper Haaretz. "The Palestinian police participated in the so-called intifada, engaging in war against the Israel Defense Forces. Such a severe situation cannot continue."

Never during the intifada did the Israeli army take such high casualties in one day--11 dead and 55 wounded.

U.S., Israeli and Palestinian officials worked through the night to end the violence, but none was willing to predict whether the gun battles will lead to serious negotiations--and renewed progress on the peace front--or continue to spiral out of control.

Most political analysts, however, argued that while the combat was a setback, it was unlikely to permanently bury the peace process any more than the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin or Islamic fundamentalist suicide bombings did. Rabin was slain in November by a Jewish law student opposed to the agreement to trade land for peace, and the Islamic Resistance Movement, or Hamas, killed more than 60 people in February and March in a wave of bombings aimed at derailing the accords.

"The fighting is an indication of how fragile the peace process is and how terrible the alternatives are," said Joseph Alpher, director of the Israel-Middle East office of the American Jewish Committee in Jerusalem. "It will focus international pressure on Israel to get moving on the Israel-Palestinian process."

Israeli officials initially accused Arafat of orchestrating the confrontations for that reason--to create a crisis that would put diplomatic pressure on the government. They said he was slow to order his security forces to halt fire and control the crowds.

"The Israelis keep saying that Arafat and the Palestinian police have to control the situation," said U.S. Consul General Edward G. Abington, the Clinton administration's point man on the Palestinians. "There is incredible anger on the streets, and the Palestinian police are not going to be Israel's police when the whole situation is going sour."

Hard-liners in Netanyahu's government will use Arafat's loss of control over his police to argue against making further concessions at the negotiating table.

But both Arafat and Netanyahu are likely to continue with the faltering peace process because neither has a real option. The outbreak of violence strengthened Arafat in the eyes of his people, who had been accusing him of doing Israel's dirty work in fighting Hamas. But Arafat owes his position as head of the Palestinian Authority to the peace process and would fall with the collapse of the accords.

Netanyahu returned from a trip to Europe asking for a meeting with Arafat. Through the gunfights he learned what the previous government already knew: When it comes to peacemaking, Arafat is still the one to call on the other side.


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