JERUSALEM — The 29-month-old intifada continued to reap a harvest of blood this week, with fighting ranging inside the Gaza Strip and in the West Bank. But the violence came as a surprising complement to a flurry of Israeli and Palestinian diplomatic moves.
An Israeli delegation flew to London Monday to attend two separate conferences: a meeting of countries contributing funds to the Palestinian Authority and an international conference to promote reforms in the P.A. Last month, Israel refused to allow a Palestinian delegation to attend London talks on political reform; this time around, Jerusalem acquiesced to American pressure that the Palestinians be permitted to make the trip.
The London meetings come just days after Prime Minister Sharon held a private get-together with Palestinian Finance Minister Salim Fayed. Sharon initiated the meeting despite his longtime pledge not to hold discussions with Palestinian officials while the violence continues.
“They met for two hours,” a source told the Israel daily Ha’aretz . “It was a get-to-know-you meeting. They exchanged views on the situation and the way in which progress could be made toward a cease-fire and resuming the peace process.” Palestinian sources later denied the two talked diplomacy.
In an interview with the Forward, Palestinian Labor Minister Ghassan Khatib described the diplomatic arena as “totally superficial.”
“There is no change in positions and attitudes,” Khatib said. “The moves are purely tactical, on both sides. Sharon is trying to give the Labor Party the impression he is worth working with the Palestinians, and he also probably wants to signal to the outside world that he is not as extreme and right-wing as he is perceived. It is all PR.”
“The Palestinians, who originally found it difficult to proceed with diplomatic contact with this government while the violence escalates, feel they have no choice but to react positively to the Europeans,” he said. “They want to encourage the European initiatives, in the hope that this will reduce their isolation and give them the opportunity to express themselves and explain how much they have been victimized.”
But despite these dismissals, the talks were accompanied by several important gestures.
On Tuesday Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz lifted a lengthy closure on the West Bank and Gaza, permitting some 20,000 Palestinian workers with legal permits to enter Israel and return to work. Mofaz had announced the closure eight days earlier in reaction to what he said were serious threats of terrorist attacks.
The Palestinian interior minister, Hani al-Hassan, who is also in charge of security forces, said Tuesday that despite the bloodshed of recent days, Israel and the P.A. would be holding a meeting to coordinate security matters later in the week. He said that participants at the meeting would discuss a possible Israeli withdrawal from West Bank cities in which there were no violent incidents — a formula that was also discussed, according to Ha’aretz , “at recent meetings between Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and senior Palestinian figures.”
In the week’s most discussed breakthrough, P.A. chairman Yasser Arafat, responding to longstanding American and European demands, announced the forthcoming appointment of a prime minister. Fayed, the man estimated to be the most credible Palestinian voice for reform — and an American and Israeli favorite for the job — withdrew his name from consideration. Palestinian sources said that Arafat’s chief deputy, Mahmoud Abbas, better known as Abu Mazen, was to be tapped for the job.
A meeting of representatives of the so-called Quartet — the United States, United Nations, European Union and Russia — was also set to take place in London to discuss the “road map,” the Quartet’s proposal for restarting Palestinian-Israeli negotiations.
Rounding out the international activity, an Israeli delegation flew to Washington this week for repeatedly delayed talks on a special American aid package. The prime minister’s office hopes the current round of meetings will finalize the details and that the Bush administration will soon submit a $4 billion military aid request to Congress. In addition to the aid, Israel is also asking for American loan guarantees of up to $8 billion.
Meanwhile, despite the hopeful diplomatic signs, Israeli-Palestinian violence raged on.
In northern Gaza, the four-man crew of an Israeli Magach 7-Kfir tank was killed February 15 when the vehicle rolled over a Hamas mine. Army units were quick to retaliate. At least 19 Palestinians were killed in several army raids, among them Hamas military commander Riyad Abu Zid. Well over 100 arrests were made.
On February 16, six Hamas operatives were killed while handling a mysterious unmanned plane they planned to use to deliver a bomb inside Israel. Palestinians accused Israel of killing the six.
Israeli incursions into the West Bank and Gaza continued throughout the week. Early Wednesday, at least 40 Israeli tanks and helicopter gunships headed for Gaza City, accompanied by bulldozers and attack helicopters. Witnesses said 11 Gazans were killed in the fighting, including a suicide bomber who tried to blow up a tank. It was the highest death toll in a single operation since January 26, when 12 Palestinians were killed in an Israeli incursion in another part of Gaza City.
Israel Radio, citing Palestinian sources, also reported that two Palestinians — a 16-year-old boy and a bakery worker — were killed early Wednesday in the casbah area of the West Bank town of Nablus.
Here too retaliation was swift: four Qassam rockets were fired at the Southern Israeli town of Sderot early Wednesday afternoon, seriously wounding one person.
The dizzying sequence of military maneuvers and diplomatic gestures should not necessarily be seen as contradictory, said Asher Susser, director of Tel Aviv University’s Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies.
“I think that what we are seeing really reflects two very different things,” Susser said. “Those with whom we are having the diplomatic activities are in the main, not those with whom we have the violence.”
He added: “Most of the violence in Gaza has been inspired by Hamas, who are not supporters of any of the diplomatic initiatives. What we are perhaps witnessing, I think, is a serious effort on the part of the Israeli government to look beyond coalition forming and beyond the purely military struggle. I also think it is pretty clear both to Palestinians and to Israelis that in this military confrontation, the Palestinians have been defeated. It has been proclaimed publicly by Palestinian leaders themselves.”
To back up his argument, Susser pointed to a controversial speech made in November by Arafat deputy Mahmoud Abbas, entitled “We Have Been Defeated.”
Observers on both sides point to increasing signs of exhaustion and economic hardship among the Palestinian population. According to recent studies, two-thirds of Palestinians live under the poverty line.
For Israelis, resignation reigns. At least 1,840 Palestinians and more than 700 Israelis have been killed since the outbreak of the intifada in September 2000. Statistics published this week show that 456 Israelis were killed in terrorist attacks in 2002. The figure for 2001 was 302.
“I think we are seeing the beginnings of an effort to start a serious diplomatic interaction with the Palestinians,” Susser said. “This doesn’t mean violence won’t continue. It may even persist for an extended period of time, but it is clear how it will end. It is time to think about where Israel goes from here. Sharon seems to be looking for some way to pursue contacts with the Palestinians, and not only as a coalition-building device to entice Labor to join him.”
Khatib rejected such optimistic evaluations. “I see no change,” the Palestinian minister said, blaming most of the violence on Israel. “In real terms it is not decreasing, not increasing - only more or less continuing.”