News Analysis: This Time, Mideast Violence is Accompanied by Peace Talks
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News Analysis: This Time, Mideast Violence is Accompanied by Peace Talks

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The scenes of violence in West Bank cities this week were widely described, at home and abroad, as reminiscent of the intifada, the Palestinian uprising that lasted five years.

Israeli troops and border police clashed with stone-throwing Palestinian students on the streets of Ramallah, Nablus and eastern Jerusalem. Three Palestinians were shot dead by the soldiers in Nablus; dozens more were injured in the clashes.

And on Israel’s northern border, Katyusha rockets launched from Lebanon rained down on vacationing tourists, reminiscent of earlier days when residents of northern Israel huddled for weeks in bomb shelters.

Despite the recollection of earlier images of violence, a major difference exists between now and then: This week’s violence took place against ongoing peace talks with the Palestinians and Syria.

In spite — or perhaps because — of the violence, the talks continued.

The demonstrators in the west Bank took to the streets in solidarity with the 6,000 Palestinians still imprisoned in Israeli jails.

They are demanding sweeping releases to coincide with the hoped-for conclusion of the second-phase agreement between Israel and the Palestinian Authority on the redeployment of Israeli troops and on ensuing Palestinian elections throughout the territories.

The clashes were reminiscent of the uprising that lasted from 1987 to 1992 not only in their physical form and impact, but in two more profound and significant respects:

They were orchestrated, not spontaneous, and they involved supporters of AI Fatah, Yasser Arafat’s pro-peace arm of the Palestine Liberation Organization protesting alongside the hard-line rejectionist factions.

For the first time since Israel and the PLO signed their Declaration of Principles in Washington in September 1993, Arafat himself apparently had ordered his supporters out into the streets.

Behind these similarities, however, lies a vast difference.

The intifada violence was an expression of the Palestinians’ rage and frustration under Israel’s occupation with no diplomatic movement in sight.

This week’s events reflected bitter resentments, too. But they took place against a backdrop of an ongoing peace process.

In fact, well-placed Israeli sources view the outbreak of street disturbances as a deliberate effort by Arafat and his close aides to affect the negotiations with Israel at this sensitive juncture.

Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin told his Cabinet this week that the present is “the most sensitive moment” since the negotiations with the Palestinians began nearly two years ago.

With the two sides working to reach an agreement on the next phase of self-rule by their pledged target date of July 1, the Palestinians apparently believe that the violence — with its concomitant bad publicity for Israel around the world — would help their negotiators win concessions from Israel both regarding prisoner releases and on the broader issues of redeployment.

the heat. Settlers reportedly widened the borders of two settlements in the West Bank, Beit Horon and Beit El, both near the Palestinian town of Ramallah. The move was part of a campaign against expanding Palestinian self-rule.

As part of their efforts, the settlers established a new yeshiva at the site of Rachel’s Tomb in Bethlehem.

Palestinians, meanwhile, launched a general strike on Tuesday to express solidarity with hunger-striking Palestinian prisoners.

The hunger strike is now into its second week.

Despite the high-pitched activity, however, Israeli and Palestinian officials continued negotiating virtually around the clock in various discreet venues in an effort to reach further agreement.

But wide gaps persisted and by midweek, Israel’s chief negotiator with the Palestinians was reportedly expressing doubt that an agreement would be reached by the Saturday deadline.

“I don’t think next week,” Uri Savir, the director-general of the Foreign Ministry told Israel’s Army Radio.

Most of the problems will be solved, he said, but “there is always a lot of drafting work.”

Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres and Arafat had met in Gaza on Sunday to try to bridge some of the differences.

Among the unresolved issues are the extent of the proposed Israeli army pullback and Israel’s commitment to set out a timetable for further redeployment in the West Bank after the Palestinian elections are held.

This analysis, the Israeli sources stress, is not to say that the Palestinians’ concern over the prisoner issue is not genuine. Indeed, a failure on Arafat’s part to obtain large-scale releases as part of the second-phase agreement package could debilitate his political leadership.

But now, unlike in the old days of the intifada, the fusion of political concerns with on-the-ground tactics is evident on both sides — which many believe is a sure sign of progress.

Some Israeli observers are extending this basically upbeat logic to the other upsurge of violence that is affecting Israel at this time — the escalation on the Lebanese border.

Last Friday morning, following, a South Lebanon Army artillery barrage that hit a Lebanese village, Hezbollah terrorists fired several Katyusha rocket salvos across the border.

The rockets killed one man, a 24-year-old French Jewish cook, and injured several others at the Club Med resort at Achziv on the Mediterranean coast just south of the border.

This was the latest in a series of attacks by the Iranian-backed fundamentalist Hezbollah, both across the border and inside Israel’s security zone in southern Lebanon.

Together, the attacks are viewed as a deliberate and sustained effort by the Shi’ite fanatics to heat up the region.

Here, too, the outbreak is reminiscent of previous escalations, some of which led to large-scale Israeli military incursions deep into southern Lebanon.

But this time the violence must be seen in the context of the Israel-Syria peace process, poised at this moment on the verge of a possible breakthrough with this week’s resumption in Washington of long-stalled talks between the army chief of staffs of the two countries.

Rabin told his Labor Party faction in the Knesset on Monday that he had instructed Israel’s Lt. Gen. Amnon Lipkin-Shahak to take up the Lebanese border issue with his Syrian counterpart.

Israeli military sources said the Syrians, deployed in much of Lebanon – – although at Israel’s insistence, not in the south — could do much to rein in the terrorists.

But in the same speech, the prime minister insisted that Syria could not be held directly responsible for the rocket attacks.

An overall accord with Syria, he said, would bring a permanent solution to the security problem on the Lebanese border as well.

For its part, Syria has said it would do nothing to contain the terrorists as long as Israel is occupying Lebanese territory.

This is not the first time that Israeli and Syrian negotiators have addressed each other simultaneously across the negotiating table and through the barrel of guns.

In 1974, after the Yom Kippur War, former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger conducted his shuttle diplomacy against a backdrop of massive artillery exchanger between the two sides.

At that time it was Israel as much as Syria that sought to make a point: The suburbs of Damascus were within range of its howitzers.

In this region, apparently, with millennia of war and bloodshed so integral to its history, even peacemaking must be accompanied by acts of violence.

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