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News Analysis: Peres Faces Inner Conflict in West Bank, Gaza Blockade

March 18, 1996
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As Israel’s closure of the West Bank and Gaza Strip continues, Shimon Peres is increasingly at odds with himself.

As defense minister, Peres would like to ease the closure and give the Palestinians a respite from the choke-hold on their economic life.

But as prime minister, he knows that this may provide a death blow to his election prospects in late May.

When he confronts the closure issue from a political standpoint, Peres is convinced that the peace process does not sit very well nowadays with the Israeli electorate.

But when he confronts the issue from a security standpoint, Peres realizes that the longer the closure’s punitive measures continue, the more frustrations mount among Palestinians, which in turn does not bode well for the peace process.

With some 60,000 Palestinian laborers kept from their jobs in Israel and with unemployment in Gaza alone topping 60 percent, the closure could well create more problems than the one – Israel’s security – it was meant to solve.

A measure of the growing frustration could be seen at Atarot on the Jerusalem- Ramallah road.

Since the closure was imposed late last month, hundreds of cars have been lining up at the checkpoint north of Jerusalem, waiting for their turn to enter Israel.

The drivers are Palestinians who are lucky enough to be holding Israeli identity cards, enabling them to pass the blockade.

As the closure continues in the weeks to come, the lines will get even longer – and tempers will grow hotter.

Israeli security officials said this week that any easing of the closure would be linked to the Palestinian Authority’s ability to capture the leaders of the Hamas and Islamic Jihad movements.

The officials referred specifically to Hamas leaders Mohammed Deif and Hassan Salameh, who are believed to be responsible for planning the recent wave of terrorist attacks in Israel.

According to the officials, the Palestinian Authority has indeed detained some of the terrorists on the wanted list that was supplied by Israel. But, they add, the detainees have yet to be tried.

Unless another wave of terrorism hits Israel, the authorities will have no choice but to gradually ease the closure, which was imposed Feb. 25 after the first of the four recent suicide bombings.

Steps in that direction were already taken this week, when Israel began allowing shipments of food supplies and other essentials into Gaza.

Israel also lifted a ban on Palestinian agricultural exports, some 80 percent of which go to Israel.

And new magnetic identification cards were being issued for the fortunate few who would eventually return to Israel.

Some 2,000 Palestinians workers in Gaza were to be allowed to return to their jobs Tuesday in the Erez industrial zone near the Israel-Gaza border.

Last Friday, Israel also lifted a separate blockade on Palestinian towns and villages in the West Bank that it had imposed in the aftermath of the suicide bombings.

Israeli leaders have indicated that they will consider modifying the closure once the Hamas leaders are apprehended.

Only two weeks ago they spoke of a “permanent” closure, but the evident hardships it has created for Palestinians now make that unfeasible.

Whatever is done, it will be far from satisfying to Palestinian society, whose daily routine is still dependent on Israel. The majority is still banned from entering Israel and remains subject to the toughest security measures since the worst days of the Palestinian uprising, or intifada.

After the terrorist attacks, the Palestinian community underwent a remarkable change.

Palestinians from all walks of life condemned the attacks; thousands went to the streets to protest them and to call for a continuation of the peace process.

There was also considerable Palestinian support for the measures, albeit limited, the Palestinian security service had taken against Hamas and the Islamic Jihad.

But now the tide is turning.

A recent opinion poll of Palestinians showed that more than 50 percent favor continued suicide attacks against Israel.

Palestinian leader Nabil Sha’ath warned in Nablus that if the Palestinians face a deadlock, they might return to the “armed struggle” of the intifada.

And this time, he added threateningly, referring to the presence of Palestinian police if the areas under Palestinian self-rule, “they have 30,000 soldiers deployed.”

For Israel’s leaders, the continued closure poses not only security and political problems.

There is also a moral dimension to the issue.

Can an Israeli government, which has sworn allegiance to the flag of peace, take such stern measures against some 1.5 million Palestinians as a collective punishment for the terrorist attacks of a few individuals?

“If we want to make peace with the Palestinians,” said Meretz Minister Shulamit Aloni, “we cannot keep behaving like colonialists and believe that we are doing them a favor by allowing the supply of medicine and food.”

There appears to be one short-term solution to Peres’ immediate dilemma.

He can lift aspects of the closure gradually while it is actually still in place.

But a bigger problem will nonetheless remain: How does one provide 1.5 million Palestinians with sufficient means for making a living without employing them in Israel?

As far as Israel’s need for laborers is concerned, the answer has been found in Thailand.

Thousands of Thai workers are on their way to Israel to replace the Palestinians who formerly held the low-paying agricultural and construction jobs.

But this solution, helpful as it may be to Israeli employers, only aggravates the unemployment situation in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Many Israelis question why they must shoulder the responsibility of providing Palestinians with their livelihood – particularly when Palestinians are seeking a separate, independent Palestinian state.

It was with this in mind that Peres called this week on the international community to provide financial aid to the Palestinians.

The world community must play its part, he said. The task of keeping bread on Palestinian tables should not fall to Israel alone.

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