Cracks already showing in a fragile ceasefire

Click to follow
The Independent Online

By tomorrow afternoon it should be possible to see whether the unwritten ceasefire agreement reached between the Israelis and Palestinians at Sharm el-Sheikh on Tuesday is going to stick. But whether the word "ceasefire" means the same thing to the security chiefs who met yesterday, let alone to Israelis and Palestinians on the street, is far from clear.

By tomorrow afternoon it should be possible to see whether the unwritten ceasefire agreement reached between the Israelis and Palestinians at Sharm el-Sheikh on Tuesday is going to stick. But whether the word "ceasefire" means the same thing to the security chiefs who met yesterday, let alone to Israelis and Palestinians on the street, is far from clear.

Certainly little had changed on the ground. Apart from a few token withdrawals of tanks near the West Bank town of Nablus, Israeli armour remained in position yesterday around Palestinian areas, enforcing a blockade of the West Bank and Gaza that is beginning to have crippling economic effects. There were clashes at Ramallah and Gaza between Palestinian youths throwing stones, bottles and petrol bombs at Israeli troops, who replied with rubber bullets and live fire.

As far as the Israeli government and security forces are concerned, the Palestinians have only another 24 hours to halt such incidents, or they will not be considered to have met the conditions for the withdrawal of the tanks and thelifting of the blockade. In Palestinian eyes the Israelis must pull out by tomorrow and cease firing live bullets at children throwing stones, or the task of bringing calm to the streets will be impossible.

During a meeting at Sharm el-Sheikh, Jibril Rajoub, head of the Palestinian Authority's Preventive Security Service, and the Gaza security chief Mohammed Dahlan demanded an end to the closure of the territories, the reopening of Gaza airport and border crossings, and the withdrawal of Israeli tanks. Avi Dichter, head of Shin Bet, the Israeli security service, demanded an end to the fighting, arrest of all those Hamas and Islamic Jihad activists the Authority had freed in the previous few days, and the disarming of the Tanzim, the armed wing of Fatah, Yasser Arafat's party.

The sight of Palestinian boys with slingshots stoning heavily armed soldiers brings to mind Biblical images of David and Goliath. If it came to a test of military strength, there is no question Israel would be the Goliath. But this kind of comparison outrages Israeli sensibil- ities. They feel threatened by hit-and-run attacks such as the one at Gilo, a Jewish settlement on the edge of Jerusalem, when Shimon Ohana, a border policeman, was critically wounded and two civilians lightly injured on Tuesday. The incident was front-page news in The Jerusalem Post yesterday.

Mr Rajoub and Mr Dahlan are almost certainly promising that armed attacks on Israeli personnel will cease. But whether they can control the Tanzim, let alone other radical groups calling for the intifada to continue, is open to question.

Marwan Barghouti, head of Fatah on the West Bank, the acknowledged chief of the Tanzim and a man thought to be positioning himself to succeed Mr Arafat, has repeatedly rejected the Sharm el-Sheikh agreement, and says he wants the "peaceful intifada" to continue. By this he means that stone-throwers should not face the same risk of being shot dead as armed Palestinian fighters, but that is a distinction the Israelis refuse to make. Soldiers are not issued with plastic shields, water cannon or batons and have little choice but to reply to stones with firearms.

Men such as Mr Arafat, Mr Rajoub and Mr Dahlan almost certainly want an end to the trouble as much as the Israelis. But three weeks and more than 100 deaths, almost all of them Palestinian, have distanced them from their own people as well as their former interlocutors on the Israeli side. It is a wide gap to bridge, and the 24 hours left is an extremely short time in which to do it.

Comments