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THE WORLD

Will Israel Stay or Will It Go, 2 Sides Wonder

July 14, 2002|BARBARA DEMICK | TIMES STAFF WRITER

BETHLEHEM, West Bank — In the weeks since tanks rolled into the West Bank, Israelis and Palestinians have debated whether Israel has turned back the clock.

Has the old Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories really resumed? Does the current military incursion shut the door on the 1993 Oslo peace accords, which had given the Palestinians a measure of autonomy and put them on what just a few years ago looked to be an inevitable trajectory toward statehood?

And besides the existential questions, there are the mundane.

For instance, who will pick up the garbage?

The Israeli government insists that what it has dubbed Operation Determined Path is designed merely to root out terrorists and that the army is not in the West Bank to stay.

"Been there, done that," said an Israeli military intelligence officer who spoke on condition of anonymity.

At the same time, military intelligence has warned that suicide bombings would resume in Israel within one week after the army withdraws. And Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon told his Cabinet this month that the army will need to remain in the West Bank for an extended period--unlike a recent massive operation in which the army remained only five weeks.

Israeli military experts warn that it will be nearly impossible for Israel to maintain its military presence without slipping back into the kind of government it established after the 1967 conquest of the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Until the peace accords began transferring authority to Palestinian self-rule in 1994, the Israeli government maintained a cumbersome and expensive bureaucracy to run everything from schools to garbage collection.

"You are either in or out. There is no middle ground," said Yoni Fighel, a former Israeli colonel who once served as military governor of the West Bank city of Ramallah. "If you are responsible militarily, you inevitably have to take responsibility for all civilian life as well."

The latest Israeli operation began in the early morning of June 19, sandwiched between two suicide bombings in Jerusalem that killed 26 people. Tanks moved into Jenin, Nablus, Ramallah, Bethlehem, Hebron, Tulkarm and Kalkilya--all the major West Bank cities except Jericho. Unlike the reaction to the previous incursion, there was little resistance and little international protest. And in a region numbed by the repetition of violence and retaliation, the incursion has received relatively few headlines.

The most visible manifestation of the Israeli presence in four of the seven cities in recent weeks were curfews and checkpoints.

Throughout the West Bank, the army has blocked roads with heaps of dirt and stone, broken refrigerators and burned hulks of old cars. Unable to travel by car, Palestinians have become backpackers and hikers. Even in the unremitting summer heat, they often carry improbably large burdens--suitcases, appliances, sometimes elderly parents--along the parched roads.

Life in the West Bank cities ebbs and flows with the curfews. When Israel lifts the restrictions, the cities are choked with manic energy as Palestinians rush to accomplish what might otherwise take an entire day.

When the clock runs out, heavy metal shutters clang shut over shop windows and Palestinians scurry back to their homes. Israeli tanks and jeeps, largely invisible when the curfew is lifted, rumble into the streets.

In the first few days of Operation Determined Path, many of the Palestinian casualties were children who apparently didn't understand the rules and were hit by warning shots fired by the Israeli army to deter curfew violators.

The curfew rules are confusing, with the hours varying from day to day and seldom announced in advance--deliberately, the army says, to deter terrorism.

After four people were killed by Israeli tank fire in Jenin on June 21, the curfews became more leniently enforced. In Bethlehem, some shops now stay open during curfews, selling wares discreetly through back doors. On curfew days in Hebron, many children take advantage of the lack of cars by kicking soccer balls through the streets.

Samieh Amra, 46, a Ramallah homemaker, recalled that during curfews imposed in March and April, residents were too terrified to poke their heads out of their doors or plant their gardens.

"We were so scared. We wouldn't even talk on the telephone.... Now we're used to living like this," Amra said as she sat with friends under a grape arbor in her backyard sipping coffee during a curfew.

But the more relaxed curfews also worry Palestinians, who see them not as emergency measures, but as part of a longer-term remedy for the problem of Palestinian militancy.

"It feels different this time," Amra said. "Like they are here to stay."

In this environment, it is difficult for the Palestinian Authority to provide basic services to the West Bank's 1.6 million residents. Government offices are open only a few days a week, if at all.

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