JERUSALEM (Dec. 30)
Have the seven days of quiet begun?
That is the question Israel and the Palestinians are debating following a recent drop in violence and with U.S. envoy Anthony Zinni expected to return to the region.
According to Israeli army statistics, terrorist incidents have dropped sharply since Dec.16, when Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat called on Palestinians to halt their attacks on Israel.
Though some Israeli analysts who examined the speech argue that it still permits attacks, Palestinian violence indeed has lessened in the two weeks since the speech. There are now an average of 11 attacks on Israelis every day in the West Bank and Gaza Strip — shootings, bombings, grenade attacks, assaults and stabbings — compared with an average of 18 a day in the two weeks before the speech.
Israel has demanded seven days of quiet as a precondition for implementing the Tenet and Mitchell plans. These understandings call for a cease-fire and provide the framework for resuming the political process.
The Palestinians say the current level of violence constitutes quiet, and that Israel is just seeking excuses not to resume diplomatic talks.
At the weekly Cabinet meeting Sunday, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon attributed the reduction in violence to Israeli measures and international pressure on Arafat. But he charged that Arafat still has not decided to abandon terror.
Israeli officials say the Palestinian Authority’s recent agreement with Hamas — under which the group will temporarily suspend terror attacks inside Israel proper — leaves its infrastructure intact for future operations.
Sunday brought reminders of how violent the ongoing conflict is, as six Palestinians died in two separate incidents in the Gaza Strip.
In one of the incidents, Israeli anti-terror forces killed three Palestinians who were attempting to cross a border fence that separates Gaza and Israel.
The Palestinians reportedly refused a call to stop and began shooting.
The three, who had explosive devices strapped to their bodies, according to Israel Radio, were killed by return fire.
Earlier in the evening, Israeli forces killed three armed Palestinians in a gun battle in northern Gaza.
And last Friday night, an Islamic Jihad member was killed trying to ambush Israeli troops in the Gaza Strip Friday night. The soldiers opened fire after spotting a suspicious figure and explosion on the Karni-Netzarim road.
The terrorist’s body, armed with a rifle, explosives belt and anti-tank rocket, was discovered the next morning.
The Palestinian Authority says it is continuing to clamp down on Islamic groups. On Sunday, Palestinian sources said security forces had arrested four members of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine suspected of involvement in the October murder of Israeli Tourism Minister Rehavam Ze’evi. The four were detained in the village of Beit Rima, near Ramallah.
Israel countered that the four indeed were involved in the assassination, but were not the actual killers.
Palestinian media also reported on the weekend arrest of three Islamic Jihad members suspected of being en route to carry out an attack against an Israeli target. One of the suspects, a resident of Khan Yunis in the Gaza Strip, was said to have been armed with a rifle and several hand grenades.
The Palestinian Authority on Friday called on the U.S. administration to send Zinni back to the region as quickly as possible to declare that the seven-day condition of quiet had been fulfilled.
Zinni’s visit earlier this month coincided with a sharp rise in Palestinian violence and Israeli military reprisals. Zinni ended his trip after 10 Israelis were killed in a bus attack near the settlement of Emmanuel, following a wave of bloody suicide bombings in Jerusalem and Haifa that killed 26 Israelis in 24 hours.
Zinni is expected to return to the region after the holidays, but no date has been finalized.
Palestinian sources said Sunday they expect Zinni to arrive as soon as Wednesday. Israeli sources said they did not expect him before the weekend.
When Zinni does arrive, he is expected to repeat his call on the Palestinians to clamp down on terror groups and on Israel to ease restrictions on the Palestinians, Ha’aretz said.
In a related development, Foreign Minister Shimon Peres told the cabinet Sunday that the aim of his contacts with the speaker of the Palestinian legislative council, Ahmed Karia, was merely to achieve a cease-fire.
Peres’ remarks came after right-wing ministers protested reports that Peres and Karia had drawn up a peace plan. Leaked last week, the plan calls on Israel to recognize a Palestinian state within weeks, while continuing to negotiate other issues.
Sharon said Peres was working to reduce the violence. Any agreement that would include recognition of a Palestinian state would first be brought before the government, Sharon said.