By Michele Chabin | Sep 29, 2004
JERUSALEM — Even before a Palestinian suicide bomber blew herself up at a crowded Jerusalem intersection last week, the first major attack in the city since February, the longtime owner of a nearby photo shop had no illusions that the Palestinian uprising that started four years ago would end any time soon.
“Things haven’t changed,” said Natan Katz, a septuagenarian, as he gazed out his shop’s window toward Ben-Yehuda Street. Since the beginning of the intifada, or uprising, in September 2000, the once bustling open-air pedestrian mall has been targeted several times by Palestinians.
After months of relative quiet and signs that an Israeli-driven plan to disengage Jewish settlers and troops from Palestinian areas is moving forward, many Israelis believe peace cannot be achieved by Israel on its own. But like the Palestinians, they are divided on how to end the conflict that has engulfed the region since Sept. 28, 2000, and killed about 2,800 Palestinians and nearly 1,000 Israelis. Those divisions are threatening to erupt into internal strife.
Like many other Israelis, Katz said he is exhausted from the conflict but unsure how peace can be restored. “I agree we should leave Gaza,” he said, referring to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s plan to pull all Jewish settlers and forces out of the Palestinian territory and parts of the West Bank next summer. “But only after the Palestinians commit to ending the violence. Unless it’s done in the framework of a peace agreement, things could get even worse,” Katz warned.
The plan would uproot 8,000 people in 21 Gaza settlements and four settlements in the West Bank. The remaining 210,000 West Bank settlers would not be affected.
Although the Palestinian leadership has long demanded a full Israeli withdrawal from all territory Israel captured during the 1967 Middle East war, it opposes Israel’s disengagement plan, especially in the West Bank. In addition to objecting to the limited pullout from the area, Palestinians say a security barrier Israel is building in parts of the West Bank is establishing the de facto border of a future Palestinian state — without negotiations. Sharon, who says Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat has failed to stop attacks on Israelis, insists there is no Palestinian with whom he can negotiate.
Roughly three-quarters of Israelis support a pullout from Gaza, according to a May poll by the Tami Steinmetz Center for Peace Research for the Ma’ariv newspaper. While 40% say they support a Gaza evacuation without a peace agreement with the Palestinians, 30% say they oppose unilateral withdrawal.
“The majority of Israelis realize there is no alternative to a unilateral Gaza withdrawal,” said Gerald Steinberg, director of the Conflict Resolution program at Bar-Ilan University near Tel Aviv. “They see it as the least-bad option.” The reason, he said: “Unilateralism will reduce the vulnerability to terror, but it won’t bring peace.”
Some Israelis fear that a pullout without first securing a peace commitment from the Palestinians is “rewarding terror.” “Israel’s unilateral withdrawal from Lebanon (in May 2000) was a major trigger in Arafat’s decision to launch the intifada,” Steinberg said. The militants, who considered the withdrawal tantamount to surrender, called on Palestinians to launch an uprising to end Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territories. The intifada broke out four months later.
Other Israelis worry that a Gaza withdrawal will create strong divisions within Israel’s already fractured society. “I don’t use the term ‘civil war,’ as others have,” Steinberg said. “But certainly there is a risk of violence and an escalation of internal conflicts from the 10% to 20% of society that opposes the withdrawal.” Extremists have acted in the past. Prime minister Yitzhak Rabin was gunned down in 1995 by a Jewish extremist opposed to Rabin’s peace efforts.
During the past month, Sharon, who reportedly has received death threats related to the redeployment, has warned that civil war could result if Jewish extremists follow through on threats to take up arms against soldiers trying to force them from their land in Palestinian territory. In mid-September, some settler leaders and right-wing rabbis called on Israeli soldiers to refuse evacuation orders.
Yossi Klein Halevi, a fellow at the Shalem Center, a Jerusalem think tank, said Israeli society is threatened by civil strife that could develop into civil war. “The danger comes when the rhetoric of the extreme peripheral right is adopted by the mainstream settler right. That’s what happened before the Rabin assassination and we’re seeing the beginnings of that process,” he said.
More-moderate settlers say they will fight the proposed redeployment through peaceful demonstrations. “All of our protests are peaceful,” said Josh Hasten, a spokesman for the Yesha council of Jewish settlers in the West Bank and Gaza, which represents 200,000 Israelis. “We do not believe in violence between Jews and soldiers, between Jews and elected officials.”
Despite the tremendous toll the uprising and Israel’s response has taken on the Palestinian people, surveys show most Palestinians support the notion of armed struggle against Israel. One poll, conducted by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research and Hebrew University in June, found that 69% of Palestinians believe armed attacks against Israelis have helped achieve their national goals. Fifty-nine percent said they support suicide bombings in Israel. However, 41%, opposed such attacks. Palestinians appear to be as divided about the best way to achieve peace as Israelis.
“The Palestinian community is under tremendous pressure from the Israeli government and military, and resistance is a natural reaction,” said Sami Awad, director of the Holy Land Trust, a Bethlehem-based Palestinian organization that promotes non-violent resistance to what it calls the Israeli “occupation.”
“That is why you see polls supporting armed resistance,” Awad said.
A need for common ground
But Awad ticked off the reasons violence won’t bring Palestinians the independence they yearn for.
“First, there is a complete imbalance between the arms available to Palestinians and those available to Israelis. Second, the Israeli government seizes on the violence . . . as proof that the Palestinians only intend to kill Israelis,” he said.
Just as important, Awad said, Palestinians and Israelis need to find some common ground as the basis of negotiations: “Ultimately, Palestinians and Israelis have to find a way to live as neighbors.”
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