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Behind the Headlines: Israelis Confounded by Palestinians As Intifada Shows No Sign of Abating

May 2, 2001
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Israel doesn’t understand the Palestinians, lamented a former official who has spent years trying to do so, and this is why Israel doesn’t know how to deal with them. The speaker was Ami Ayalon, until recently the head of the Shin Bet security service, which fights an ongoing war against Palestinian terrorism.

Ayalon, who became a go-between for former Prime Minister Ehud Barak with Palestinian officials after his Shin Bet service, suggested a “simple” solution to the conflict with the Palestinians when he was interviewed this week by Israel’s Channel Two Television.

Give the Palestinians an independent state and the seven-month intifada will be over, Ayalon said in the interview broadcast Monday night.

Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat chose the path of violence over diplomatic negotiations because “Barak lost all the confidence the Palestinians had initially given him,” Ayalon said.

Israel is “strong enough militarily, and I would like to believe morally, to give the Palestinians their own independent state,” he said.

The interview was noteworthy because the comments sympathetic to the Palestinian cause came from a man who once stood at the core of the Israeli security establishment.

It also was noteworthy because of how isolated Ayalon is in his analysis of Palestinian motivations.

Not only hawkish members of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s government would disagree with Ayalon; many leftists, disenchanted with Arafat, also consider Ayalon’s analysis naive.

Across the political spectrum, Israelis feel they have good reason to suspect the Palestinians. While many Israelis had believed that the violent Palestinian uprising that began in late September would burn itself out, it shows no signs of abating.

Time and again, Arafat pledges to reduce the violence — and Palestinian attacks intensify. Shooting and bombing attacks continue at the rate of dozens a day.

This week, for example, just as Foreign Minister Shimon Peres was announcing that Israel and the Palestinians were nearing agreement on the terms of a cease-fire, Hamas terrorists killed an Israeli in a West Bank ambush. The victim’s father had been killed in another West Bank drive-by shooting in January.

Do the Palestinians really want to end the violence?

Some Israelis thought there was light at the end of the tunnel last week, when the two sides discussed reopening the casino in the West Bank city of Jericho.

Immensely profitable for the Palestinian Authority, which is a joint owner, the casino was among the first casualties of the violence that erupted last September. Before that, it provided a living to more than 1,000 Palestinians, drawing thousands of Israelis for whom gambling is illegal within Israel’s borders.

If Israel would let Israelis come back to the casino, Palestinian negotiators promised, the Palestinian Authority would bring an end to attacks on the Jordan Valley road, a major traffic artery between Jerusalem and the Galilee.

Israeli drivers have all but stopped using the road for fear of roadside ambushes.

Many Israelis were outraged, saying the Palestinians should not be permitted to keep the peace where it is profitable for them to do so, while attacking Israelis elsewhere. Others noted that the offer seemed to resolve doubts about whether the Palestinian Authority can control the anti-Israel violence if it chooses.

The talks broke down when Sharon said he would not rescind an order preventing Israelis from traveling to the West Bank. Without Israelis, who were the leading patrons of the Jericho casino, there was little point in pursuing the idea of reopening the gambling mecca.

Israelis also were optimistic that the violence might end when Arafat reportedly issued an order last week for an end to Palestinian mortar attacks on Israel.

Within days, however, the attacks resumed — and Palestinian militia members denied ever having received the order from Arafat in the first place.

Even Peres, one of the lone voices in the Sharon government who still believes that Arafat is a partner for peace, said he has no explanation for the Palestinian leader’s behavior.

Even if Israel can reach agreement with Arafat on a cease-fire, many wonder whether he would be able to deliver on the deal.

Arafat often tries to shirk responsibility for Palestinian violence, saying it emanates from elements he does not control. Sharon, however, increasingly is holding the Palestinian Authority responsible for all attacks that originate in areas under its control.

Since taking office earlier this year, Sharon said he would target Palestinians responsible for attacks on Israelis, but would seek to avoid collective punishment against the general Palestinian population.

The policy was based on the assumption that the civilian population eventually would force the Palestinian leadership into a cessation of hostilities.

So far, however, the opposite appears true.

Far from seeking peace, the Palestinians have created a new militia that draws its membership from Arafat’s own Fatah faction, Hamas, Islamic Jihad and the Marxist Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine.

When rumors circulated this week that Arafat wanted to disband the new militia, hundreds of Palestinians took to the streets of the Gaza Strip in protest.

In addition, many Palestinians believe that the success of Hezbollah fighters — whose war of attrition forced Israel to withdraw its troops from southern Lebanon — shows that Israel understands only the language of force.

Public opinion polls have shown overwhelming support among the Palestinian public for continuing the violent uprising — 80 percent of respondents, according to a recent poll by the Palestinian Jerusalem Media and Communications Center — with 75 percent supporting suicide bombings.

A rare dissenting voice is Bassam Abu Sharif, a political adviser to Arafat and one of Arafat’s closest associates. Abu Sharif criticizes Palestinian terror attacks directed at Israeli civilians.

“Your attacks should be aimed at the soldiers deployed at the entrances to our cities,” Abu Sharif said during a television interview. “Why don’t you attack them, and not blow up children on their way to school?”

Abu Sharif charged that attacks on Israeli civilians give Sharon rhetorical ammunition against the Palestinians as he seeks support from the international community.

Abu Sherif’s interview did not play well in some Palestinian quarters.

Three days after it aired, Islamic religious leaders in Bethlehem demanded that Abu Sherif be declared a collaborator with Israel.

Little wonder that the Israel Defense Force continually warns that dealings with the Palestinians are likely to get worse before they get better.

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