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THE MIDDLE EAST

A Plan to Turn Back the Clock

Military: As troops enter West Bank city of Jenin, Israel's move to seize land threatens to erase the gains of Oslo accords.

June 20, 2002|TRACY WILKINSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

JERUSALEM -- The Israeli army planted mobile homes and water tanks in the West Bank city of Jenin on Wednesday, the first sign of the government's potentially far-reaching plan to capture and keep Palestinian territory in response to acts of terror.

Other than the Jenin maneuvers, however, it remained wholly unclear how the new policy will play out.

Announced dramatically in the middle of the night, the shift could send thousands of Israeli troops back into West Bank cities in roles not seen in nearly a decade. Or steps could be taken more gradually, raising minimal international protest but assuaging an Israeli public demanding revenge and safety.

The government of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, responding to a bus bombing Tuesday that was the deadliest Palestinian attack in Jerusalem in six years, announced it would seize swaths of Palestinian-controlled land after each new suicide bombing--and would hold the territory "until terror stops."

Tuesday's suicide bombing, which prompted Sharon's new policy, was followed by another Wednesday; the two bombers killed 26 people in 36 hours.

"We have to get into every town, every place where terrorists are being prepared to be suicide bombers," Communications Minister Reuven Rivlin said Wednesday night. "We will be, at every moment, in the cities when and where we want."

Taken to its fullest extent, Sharon's announcement raises the specter of a large-scale, open-ended Israeli takeover of the West Bank. Such a move would represent another nail in the coffin of the landmark and now moribund 1993 Oslo peace accords, which launched the hand-over of land to Palestinians.

Reoccupation would also represent another step in dismantling the already battered Palestinian Authority headed by Yasser Arafat and established by the Oslo agreement.

Rivlin said a throwback to a pre-Oslo state of affairs was in fact desirable. When Israeli troops patrolled the streets of Palestinian cities, or controlled most aspects of Palestinian life, intelligence was better and terror attacks could be kept at a minimum, Rivlin argued.

But deploying Israeli troops on a large scale also exposes them to greater harm. Although Palestinian gunmen have only rarely confronted Israeli tanks and armor head-on, they would be faced with a tempting abundance of targets.

And many Israelis have little stomach for permanent reoccupation, because it would eventually imply providing services for more than 3 million Palestinians, a costly endeavor.

"It is not our intent to move in and reoccupy permanently," said another government spokesman, Daniel Seaman. "This is deterrent and strategic.... It is punitive. We want them to understand the consequences of reoccupation. They have to understand they will lose everything they have achieved."

Israeli Defense Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer said Wednesday that he opposes retaking Palestinian-controlled territories on a permanent basis, but he said the army will stay in some areas for "a week, two weeks or three."

The Oslo peace process gave Palestinians full or partial autonomy over large portions of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, which were captured by Israel during the 1967 Middle East War. But the land is in chunks that are chopped up by scores of Jewish settlements and Israeli-controlled roads connecting them. The Palestinians had hoped to eventually build a sovereign state on less truncated territory.

In most of the last 21 months of conflict, Israel has insisted it had no intention of reoccupying Palestinian land. A five-week offensive launched in late March after a suicide bombing killed 29 Israelis sent troops into almost every Palestinian city, but the army always said the action was temporary. In the weeks since, troops have staged regular raids in Palestinian towns but have always withdrawn fairly quickly.

If the army now takes up permanent positions inside Palestinian towns, another threshold will have been crossed in the conflict--a step taken that was unimaginable two years ago.

In reality though, the lines designating Palestinian control have already been blurred.

The Israeli army has made it clear it would enter Palestinian-ruled areas at will in the pursuit of potential suicide bombers, militants and other enemies. The army chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Shaul Mofaz, said he no longer recognized so-called Area A, land under full Palestinian authority as established by the Oslo accords. Many West Bank cities and towns remain surrounded by troops or barbed wire. On any given day, most Palestinians have to cross Israeli military roadblocks to travel from one town to the next, where work or school may await. Palestinians were already complaining that their land had been reoccupied.

Palestinian officials said Israel's announcement continued what they maintain has been Sharon's master plan all along: to seize and subjugate the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Several said "all resistance" is now justified.

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