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Cease-fire Hangs by a Thread, with Each Side Doubting Other

It’s not much of a cease-fire, but it’s all that the Israelis and Palestinians have.

Even when Foreign Minister Shimon Peres and Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat met last week at the Gaza airport to discuss a series of steps aimed at bolstering the truce, heavy exchanges of gunfire could be heard nearby.

And even after the two announced the steps each side would take following their Sept. 26 meeting, the situation escalated.

Within days, the Palestinians took to the streets to mark the first anniversary of their ongoing uprising.

On Sunday, Israeli troops clashed with Palestinian gunmen and rock-throwers in the West Bank and Gaza Strip for a fourth day in a row. During the day’s clashes, at least two Palestinians were killed, leaving at least 17 Palestinians killed since the two sides agreed last week to bolster the cease-fire.

Israeli officials, who say the Palestinian the victims were involved in attacks on Israel’s soldiers, are now questioning whether Arafat was genuine about a cease-fire.

As far as his negotiating partner, Peres, is concerned, the problem is not with Arafat, but with the continued anger of the Palestinian people.

“The conflict is not with Arafat personally,” Peres said. “It is a conflict between two peoples.”

Roni Shaked, the Palestinian affairs analyst for the Israeli daily Yediot Achronot, agrees with Peres’ analysis.

“The Palestinian street wants riots,” he said. “There is a gap between what Arafat wants at this stage and what the Palestinian public wants.”

According to Shaked, Arafat is trying to maneuver between the demands of Palestinian radicals and U.S. pressure for a halt to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Washington views such a halt as necessary if it is to line up Arab support for the international anti-terror coalition it wants to create following the Sept. 11 terror attacks against the World Trade Center and Pentagon.

Even if Arafat genuinely wants to enforce the cease-fire, it is now much more difficult for him to do so than it was prior to the outbreak of the intifada, because power is now divided between him and the Palestinian militias.

Moreover, the job of enforcement will be difficult because of the widespread support the intifada still has among the Palestinian public. According to a recent poll, a whopping 85 percent of Palestinians want the uprising to continue.

Despite such sobering statistics, Peres is asking for patience.

“There are no more suicide bombers, and there is a considerable drop in violence” since he met last week with Arafat, Peres said.

He also drew a line between those, like the Islamic fundamentalist Hamas and Islamic Jihad movements, who “want to annihilate Israel” and “the Palestinians who want dialogue.”

According to Peres, Arafat belongs to the second group.

Peres may be correct about Arafat, but with officials from Hamas, Islamic Jihad and the Palestinian militias vowing to continue fighting Israel, it may not make much difference where the already shaky cease-fire is concerned.

The difficulty of enforcing the truce was made clear in the Rafah region in southern Gaza, the site of continued clashes between Israeli troops and Palestinian gunmen.

In recent days, Arafat dispatched a force of several hundred Palestinian policemen to the area to try to restore peace.

But, he told Peres in a late-night telephone conversation, the police were encountering fire from Palestinians militias in the region that were refusing to lay down their arms.

Hours before the Peres-Arafat meeting last week, Palestinian militants detonated a large bomb beneath an Israeli base near the Rafah crossing that separates Gaza and Egypt.

For weeks before the attack, Palestinians had dug a tunnel from the town of Rafah to a point underneath the base.

As it was, only three Israeli soldiers were lightly injured when a wall collapsed on them. The attack could have ended with scores of Israeli soldiers dead — and the end of the cease-fire even before it began.

As it is, Israeli and Palestinian officials are now trading blame for the continued violence.

Arafat said Sunday that Israel was guilty of a “deliberate escalation.” Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s spokesman, Ra’anan Gissin, said Arafat was taking “no real action” to enforce the cease-fire.

The Israeli army says Palestinians have carried out more than 100 gun, grenade and mortar attacks since the truce was reached.

Most Israeli analysts are saying that the fate of the cease-fire depends on Arafat and the Palestinian commanders in the field.

However, some Israelis, including Peres himself, suggest that perhaps the Israel Defense Force is not doing enough to lower the flames.

A fatal incident Sunday morning provided such critics with a case in point.

A Palestinian taxi carrying Palestinian workers on their way to Israel approached an army roadblock in the West Bank. When the driver failed to halt at the soldiers’ command, the soldiers fired at the cab, killing two workers, wounding six.

“What do you call this?” asked Ha’aretz commentator Gideon Levy. “Is this not a violation of the cease-fire? Is this not terror?”

In a mirror version of the debate among Israelis regarding Arafat’s intentions, Palestinian officials are charging that Israeli leaders, including Sharon, want to jeopardize the cease-fire agreement.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the divide, Peres suggested over the weekend that Arafat be given more time to live up to the truce.

On Sunday, Israel’s Inner Cabinet decided to give Arafat at least another 48 hours. The ministers also decided Sunday to lift a blockade of the West Bank city of Jericho and open the border crossing at Rafah.

Despite these moves, the mood among top Israeli officials was one of deep skepticism.

“One suicide bomber, and it’s all over,” an official in the Foreign Ministry said.

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