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Israel, Palestinians prepare for all hell to break loose


JERUSALEM, July 17 (JTA) — As their leaders are talking peace, many Israelis and Palestinians are preparing for war.

They include not only militant Jewish settlers and members of the fundamentalist Palestinian Hamas movement, but also the Israeli army and the troops of Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat’s Fatah group.

In recent weeks, Israeli intelligence officials and Palestinian activists have reached the same conclusion: If the talks fail, all hell could break loose — and now is the time to prepare for it.

“It’s not a matter of pushing a button,” said Hassan Ayoub, director general of the PLO’s Land Protection Office in the West Bank town of Nablus. “The explosion will not necessarily be immediate, but the explosives” are already in place.

Various Palestinian organizations, including Fatah, have already declared an official state of emergency.

Meanwhile, Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Gaza Strip have also gone on alert.

Activists from the 25 settlements in the Gush Etzion bloc south of Jerusalem recently met with residents of the northern community of Kiryat Shmona — which repeatedly suffered Hezbollah rocket attacks before Israel withdrew from Lebanon in May — to learn how to conduct life under siege.

Last winter, snow crippled the settlement of Karmei Tzur in the Hebron region for two days. Residents used the situation to launch a simulation drill — again dealing with how to survive under a possible siege.

The opportunity for yet another drill was provided by the Mekorot water company, which cut off the water supply of some settlements during a recent strike. The settlers coped with the challenge by shipping water in tankers from one settlement to another.

“We are telling our people to get ready, to stock up on food and prepare for the worst,” said Shaul Goldstein, mayor of the Etzion bloc.

Even though he and other settler leaders have said that “the worst” will not necessarily happen, Goldstein said, “the level of panic has risen” among settlers.

During the past few days, Palestinian youths at seemingly innocent summer camps have been undergoing military-style training. They crawled under barbed wire, took over hilltops, practiced sniper attacks and chanted slogans that ended with the all-too-familiar “death to Israel” declaration.

All of this might make one feel that the Camp David summit had never been held.

“We can feel the tension in the air,” said Bentzi Lieberman, mayor of the regional council of Shomron in the northern West Bank.

In the last few days, various Palestinian organizations distributed fliers in the Nablus region, urging people to stock up on supplies for at least 10 months.

Settlers have stocked up for shorter periods, assuming that no government will tolerate a long Palestinian siege on any settlement.

“We are not getting ready for a war of attrition,” said Lieberman. “We demand from the army clear decisions and clear responses.”

The Israel Defense Force has declared that it is prepared for every possible scenario.

The army chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Shaul Mofaz, has already gone on record with a warning that the Palestinian Authority is readying itself for a violent confrontation with Israel if the Camp David talks fail. The army has provided settlements with rubber bullets and tear-gas grenades in case they need to defend themselves.

According to military sources, the worst-case scenario, if the Camp David summit fails, would be a well-organized popular uprising — a combination of the 1987-1993 intifada coupled with the Hezbollah-style guerrilla attacks used against Israeli troops in Lebanon.

One possible scenario envisions thousands of unarmed women and children storming the settlements.

“What do we do if this happens?” asked Goldstein. “Do we shoot them? Can the army afford to shoot them and create a bloodbath?”

Settler leaders raised such questions during a recent meeting with Mofaz and other senior IDF officers.

“We told the army that it was their responsibility to prepare for such an eventuality and that they should not put the burden on us,” Goldstein said.

During the meeting, army brass assured the settlers that the IDF would consider any attack on any settlement as life endangering — which the settlers said they understood as a license to shoot.

But Goldstein, who said he was not really satisfied with the answers he heard, believes that the “army is not really prepared.”

“For example, they have not allocated budgets to buy tractors and bulldozers to remove Palestinian trucks loaded with tons of earth that could block off roads to the settlements.”

For his part, Ayoub of the PLO is hoping that there will not be a confrontation.

But he, like many settler leaders, is not overly optimistic.

Ayoub, a resident of a refugee camp near Nablus, believes that in the event of a new intifada, the main line of confrontation will be the Jewish settlements.

But he thinks that it is highly unlikely that thousands of Palestinian civilians will storm the settlements. The settlements are usually located on high terrain and they are well-protected, he said.

The IDF has meanwhile cast a wary eye on the Palestinian military capability in the Gaza Strip.

According to unconfirmed reports, Palestinian police in Gaza have some 44 Russian-made armored vehicles that were smuggled across the Egyptian border. Police there are also said to be equipped with rockets and anti-helicopter missiles.

Israeli officials estimate that the Palestinian police force has some 80,000 rifles — double the number both sides agreed to in earlier peace agreements.

The officials are likewise concerned about Palestinian sharpshooters, who could cause heavy casualties even in limited hostilities.

In past confrontations — like those that erupted in September 1996, when the opening of an archaeological tunnel in Jerusalem’s Old City sparked three days of Palestinian rioting in which 15 Israelis and 61 Palestinians were killed — the IDF did not hesitate to dispatch tanks toward the major Palestinian population centers.

There are now reports that the Palestinians have begun digging anti-tank ditches.

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