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Israel Begins Withdrawing Troops, but Can People Begin to Hope Again?

August 20, 2002
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Anyone wishing to check just how low Israeli-Palestinian trust has sunk need only look at this week’s agreement on a gradual Israeli troop withdrawal from the Gaza Strip and Bethlehem.

Even a year ago, with the Palestinians demanding a complete Israeli withdrawal to positions held before the intifada began, a plan for a withdrawal from just two areas would have been considered laughable.

Yet this week, people were hoping against hope that even a modest agreement might finally herald a return to brighter times.

Finalized at a Tel Aviv meeting Sunday night between Israeli Defense Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer and Palestinian Authority Interior Minister, Gen. Abdel Razak Yiheyeh, the plan calls for Israeli troops to gradually pull back from Palestinian areas.

Israel originally had wanted to withdraw only from the Gaza Strip, but gave in to Palestinian demands and included a West Bank city, Bethlehem, in the mix.

Even as skeptics were crying that the plan would never work, Israel pulled all of its troops out of Bethlehem on Monday. They remained surrounding the city and manning roadblocks in the area.

A Defense Ministry statement added that the withdrawal was contingent on the Palestinians taking “responsibility to calm the security situation and reduce violence.”

The Palestinians will assume responsibility for security in the areas as the Israeli army evacuates.

In addition, Israel is to lessen restrictions on Palestinian civilians, and local commanders on both sides would meet in coming days, while Ben-Eliezer would continue to monitor the discussions.

After the seemingly endless violence of the past two years — which has almost removed the term “breakthrough” from the political lexicon — many see the “Gaza/Bethlehem First” plan as the best hope for restarting a political process.

Ben-Eliezer called the plan the most “real” of recent proposals, because the sides are proceeding “step by step.”

“There is a real opportunity here for the Palestinians to stop the violence and terror and set out on a new path,” he was quoted as saying.

For the first time since talks on the plan began, photographers were allowed to take pictures of the participants before Sunday’s meeting. Israeli media speculated that the move was a photo-op aimed at boosting Ben-Eliezer’s political chances if he runs for prime minister in elections that might be moved up to January 2003.

Indeed, analysts speculated that Ben-Eliezer was desperate for a political accomplishment to siphon some support away from Haifa Mayor Amram Mitzna, who recently announced his intention to challenge Ben-Eliezer for the Labor Party leadership and has emerged as a strong candidate.

After the withdrawal, Haj Ismail, a Palestinian security commander, arrived in Bethlehem to begin preparations to reduce the violence.

Also Monday, Israel approved the transfer of 14 Palestinian police officers from other areas in the West Bank to Bethlehem.

However, in a sign of how deeply the two sides mistrust one another, even such a limited agreement is being met with skepticism.

Israeli security officials stressed that the real test of the agreement will be what happens on the ground — and the discovery of an explosives laboratory in the West Bank city of Nablus, and a security alert Monday for a possible terrorist attack in northern Israel, underscored the remaining dangers.

Earlier Monday, a 13-year-old Palestinian was killed by Israeli tank fire near the West Bank city of Jenin.

As of Monday night, Israeli troops had not left any of the Gaza Strip, in light of terrorist alerts.

Jibril Rajoub, the former head of the Palestinian Authority’s Preventive Security Service in the West Bank, said the Palestinian security forces had been devastated by the Israeli military actions in the territories, and wouldn’t be able to crack down on terrorists.

“The Palestinian security agencies in the West Bank have been destroyed, and so has their infrastructure. I don’t believe they can play any role,” the Jerusalem Post quoted Rajoub as saying.

For their part, Hamas and Islamic Jihad swiftly declared their opposition to the agreement and vowed to continue attacking Israel.

Hamas officials said the agreement was an attempt to pacify the Palestinian street ahead of an American attack on Iraq. Islamic Jihad officials called it a “political gamble.”

Likud legislator Yuval Steinitz, like other right-wing members of the Knesset, called the agreement a “joke.”

“Eight years after the failure of the Oslo process,” Steinitz said, “again and again, we are prepared to forgive our enemies.”

Steinitz said it is obvious the agreement bears Arafat’s stamp of approval. Steinitz believes Israel should expel Arafat from the territories, and the Israeli government has pledged not to deal with him.

For a few days this week, though, there was some hope that the worst might be over — but for most Israelis, the hope was faint and guarded.

“If there is, in fact, any light at the end of the tunnel,” Ha’aretz’s Arab affairs analyst Danny Rubinstein wrote of the agreement, “it is very, very dim.”

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