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Behind the Headlines: Israelis Almost Evenly Divided in Wake of Washington Signing

If Israeli leaders were expecting a strong reaction from the Israeli public to the Washington signing of the Interim Agreement, they were in for a surprise.

Israeli and Palestinian officials announced just hours before the start of Rosh Hashanah that an agreement for extending West Bank autonomy had been reached.

But many Israelis didn’t learn of the Interim Agreement, known here as Oslo II, until the end of the two-day holiday, leaving no time to organize rallies, for or against the agreement.

Israeli public opinion, according to the latest opinion polls, is about evenly split over the agreement.

On Sept. 27, a day after Rosh Hashanah, hundreds of people demonstrated under the banner of Zo Artzeinu, or This is our Land, a right-wing group that in the past has mobilized thousands of demonstrators across the country.

Although sporadic demonstrations snarled traffic in the capital and elsewhere, the scene was a far cry from the massive outpourings of anti-government sentiment that have taken place recently.

The greatest display of disaffection took place among West Bank settlers, particularly in the West Bank town of Hebron.

Last Friday, a day after the Sept. 28 Washington signing ceremony, settler leaders announced that they would form a voluntary militia to patrol the West Bank when Israel begins redeploying its troops there under the terms of the Interim Agreement.

And Saturday, about 100 settlers marched through the streets of Hebron shouting “This is Our Land” and “Slaughter the Arabs.” Two settlers were detained after they threw stones at Palestinians, Army Radio reported.

On Sunday, more than 100 Israelis from Jordan Valley farming settlements protested at the Allenby Bridge crossing into Jordan, charging that the Interim Agreement was abandoning them to Palestinian rule.

Traffic was stopped for hours until Israeli police dragged the settlers aware from the bridge entrance, located just outside the Palestinian self-rule enclave in Jericho.

But in Jerusalem, there was little evidence of those high-pitched emotions.

According to the latest poll published in the Israeli daily Yediot Achronot, 51 percent of the Israeli public supports the Interim Agreement, while 47 percent of the public opposes it. Given the poll’s 4 percent margin of error, the results represent a statistical dead heat.

While the scene on the streets here was relatively low-key, the Israeli press was full of commentary.

Reaction was predictable, depending on the newspaper’s predisposition to the peace process as a whole.

The right-wing daily Hatzofeh, an organ of the National Religious Party, blasted the agreement in an editorial as the “Rabin government’s document of surrender” to Palestine Liberation Organization Chairman Yasser Arafat.

Editorialists for the Israeli daily Ma’ariv wrote that to the credit of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Foreign Minister Shimon Peres, the Interim Agreement “does not create irreversible facts in three areas: responsibility for security, the fate of the settlements and the future of Jerusalem.”

The newspaper also said that “less than one-third of Judea and Samaria, including the cities of the West Bank, is being given to Arafat,” and that “If the agreement founders, Israel will hold the key positions: the mountainous spine of Judea and Samaria, the Jordan Valley, Greater Jerusalem, control of the roads and the settlements.”

Walking around Jerusalem, randomly interviewing passers-by and shopkeepers, it seems that few Jewish Israelis wholeheartedly support the interim agreement.

Although many Israelis say they are uncomfortable about making concessions to the Palestinians, they feel unable to stop the momentum.

“I hope for the best, of course, but I am afraid,” Shoshana Cohen, a soft- spoken Jerusalemite in her 50s, said just hours before the White House signing ceremony.

“Look for yourself. There is none of the euphoria that greeted the peace treaty with Egypt. Were you in Israel then? People were thrilled, they danced in the streets.

Cohen, taking pains to stress that she is not anti-Arabs in principle, recalled strained Arab-Jewish relations during her childhood.

“I grew up in the Old City, so I know the Arabs,” she said. “Growing up, my family lived in a one-room apartment with a single window. Every night, my father boarded up that window because Arabs would bang their knives against the grill. They threw stones at us as children. So, yes, I’m concerned about the future.”

Said Uzi Avrashim, a 26-year-old exercise instructor: “I’m not unhappy about Oslo II, but I am uneasy. The agreement isn’t clear enough. I get all my information from the TV and newspapers, so it’s impossible to know what it all means.”

Taking the issue of Hebron as an example, Avrashim said, “What will happen to Kiryat Arba and the Tomb of the Patriarchs? They must stay in our hands.”

Asked whether he believes that the agreement will culminate in a Palestinian state, he shrugged and said, “It’s clear that there will be Palestinian state. What can we do about it now? This is just the way it will be.

“What bothers me most,” he added, “is the way the government has pushed through the agreement without telling us anything. Why shouldn’t we feel uneasy?”

But Ayad Hoshi, an 18-year-old Palestinian lifeguard working in western Jerusalem, called the agreement “a good thing, assuming the assurances are genuine.”

According to a survey conducted by the Nablus-based Center for Palestine Research and Studies just prior to the Washington signing ceremony, 70 percent of Palestinians support continued peace talks with Israel.

“I really want this peace agreement to work,” Hoshi said. “I want to be able to go out with my friends – I have both Jewish and Arab friends – but there is just too much fear at the moment. Really, this agreement is a step in the right direction.”

Another young Palestinian, a restaurant worker who asked that his name not be used, agreed.

“I think this is a very good agreement because it provided us with what we need. My friends and I really want peace. Right now, we don’t really live; we need to have the chance to live, to have some freedom.”

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