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Army Chiefs Nervously Eye ‘Trap’ in Palestinian Cease-fire

ZJERUSALEM — Despite Israel’s reluctant agreement this week to respect an emerging cease-fire among Palestinian factions, at least temporarily, senior security officials here continue to describe the cease-fire as a “trap” that could help the terrorist organizations regroup and hamper Israel’s efforts to fight them.

Israel agreed to respect the intra-Palestinian cease-fire for a period of up to six weeks, in order to allow time for the Palestinian prime minister, Mahmoud Abbas, also known as Abu Mazen, and his security chiefs to organize and seize control of internal security in the Gaza Strip. The agreement, reached during American-Israeli talks in Washington and authorized by Prime Minister Sharon, came under intense American pressure and against the backdrop of steadily deepening American involvement in the Israeli-Palestinian dispute.

American, European and Egyptian officials involved in the efforts to achieve the “hudna,” a Muslim term for cease-fire, were convinced an agreement between Hamas and the Palestinian Authority was imminent. Immediately after the internal cease-fire is concluded, Mohammed Dahlan, the Palestinian minister for internal security, is expected to announce that the Palestinian Authority is assum- ing overall security responsibility for Gaza.

But Israel’s top security officials, including the defense minister, Shaul Mofaz, and the military chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Moshe Ya’alon, remain highly skeptical that Dahlan and his deputies have either the will or the ability to confront Hamas and other terrorist groups.

In internal discussions, both Mofaz and Ya’alon have described the emerging “hudna” between Hamas and the P.A. as a “trap” from which Israel would be hard pressed to extricate itself.

“We’re going to give them immunity at the very moment when we’ve got them on the run,” one top army officer told the Forward this week. The officer said that the Hamas willingness to contemplate even a temporary cease-fire is a direct result of the recent wave of army liquidations of top Hamas activists and terrorists. “Hamas leaders have no qualms about sending volunteers to blow themselves up,” the officer said, “but personally they have no suicidal tendencies.”

The officer added that for the first time, “external Hamas,” operating out of Beirut and Damascus, is not urging “internal Hamas” in the territories to press on with the violence and terrorism. The officer said that both Damascus and Teheran — which hold sway over “external Hamas” and have traditionally prodded the organization to carry out terrorist attacks in order to disrupt any emerging diplomatic process — are now advising Hamas to maintain a low profile, at least for the time being. Given the massive American military presence in Iraq, both Syria and Iran are wary of the implications of being perceived in Washington as encouraging Hamas terrorism and are thus urging the organization to exercise extreme caution.

In high-level talks conducted in Washington this week by Sharon’s bureau chief, Dov Weisglass, and the head of Israel’s Shin Bet General Security Services, Avi Dichter, Israel agreed that once Dahlan assumes security responsibility, the Israeli army would unilaterally stop all “liquidations” of suspected Palestinian terrorists.

Mofaz and Ya’alon are concerned that Hamas will utilize the emerging “cease-fire” period in order to rearm and regroup, awaiting the opportunity to relaunch even more devastating terrorist attacks against Israeli civilians. In private conversations, Mofaz and others are also expressing concern about the cumulative effect of “the illusion of peace and quiet.” The army, they fear, will be unable to resume counter-terrorist activities against Hamas, even if the P.A. does nothing to neutralize the organization, because the Bush administration will tie Israel’s military hands for fear of disrupting the diplomatic process. And the defense establishment will find it difficult, both politically and personally, to refrain from reacting to individual terrorist attacks, especially those that inflame public opinion, such as the shooting incident on the new Cross-Israel Highway this week in which a two-year-old girl was killed.

Sharon, his advisers say, shares many of the concerns voiced by Mofaz and Ya’alon, but has decided nonetheless to cooperate with the American-Egyptian efforts to achieve a cease-fire, lest he be portrayed as blocking potential progress and weakening the already precarious political position of Abu Mazen. Sharon, one of his advisers said, “wants to make it crystal-clear to the Americans that if the process does collapse, as many expect, it will be through no fault of the Israelis.”

According to the understandings struck between Washington and Jerusalem, any information on anticipated terrorist attacks, including so-called “ticking bomb” terrorists who are already on their way to carry out attacks, would be conveyed to the Palestinian security apparatus, which would then be expected to thwart the attack and to arrest the suspected perpetrator. On the West Bank, where Israel would retain security responsibility for the time being, the army would exercise “restraint” and carry out only “vital” preventive measures.

Israel has made clear, however, that it would respect the “hudna” and give Abu-Mazen “breathing room” only for a period of up to six weeks, and would then expect the Palestinian security organs to start cracking down on Hamas and dismantling its terrorist infrastructure. Weisglass and Dichter also emphasized that if the Palestinians do not make “100% efforts” to thwart terrorist attacks from Gaza, Israel would view its security arrangements with Dahlan as null and void.

President Bush’s special envoy, John Wolf, arrived in Israel this week to begin monitoring the implementation of the “road map,” and Secretary of State Colin Powell was expected to come to Jerusalem Friday for short meetings with Sharon and Abu Mazen, in order to cement the understandings reached in Washington by Weisglass and Dichter.

More significantly, perhaps, given her clout in the White House, National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice is also scheduled to come to the area at the end of the month for her first independent foray into the complex Israeli-Palestinian arena.

Officials in Jerusalem said that while Washington continues to criticize Israel’s failed assassination attempt of Hamas political leader Abdel Aziz Rantisi, both countries have now agreed to “put the incident behind them.” The officials said that in Dichter’s talks with intelligence and other officials in Washington, both sides agreed that Hamas and its terrorist activities posed the greatest danger to the fledgling peace process, and that the road map process would not be able to get under way if the organization was not effectively neutralized in the very near future. “The administration now regards Hamas just the same as Al Qaeda,” one official in the prime minister’s office said.

Eager to preserve good relations with Washington, Sharon has decided to move forward with evacuation of “unauthorized outposts,” ordering the army to prepare a list of additional outposts to be evacuated if and when an Israeli-Palestinian security understanding on Gaza is announced.

The evacuations were the subject of what settler leaders called a “tense and depressing” meeting this week in which Sharon told them that he intends to proceed with the removal of the outposts and that he is determined to advance the road map process, if the Palestinians live up to their commitments. The settler leaders said that Sharon, often described as the “father of the settlement movement,” was now “a changed man.”

The prospect of increased tensions between Sharon and the pro-settlement right, combined with the expected Israeli “gestures” towards the Palestinians in exchange for their promised security performance, is once again fueling speculation about a potential coalition crisis that could see the departure of one or both right-wing parties, the National Religious Party and National Union, and the reentry of the Labor Party into a so-called government of national unity. Labor was expected this week to install its elder statesman, Shimon Peres, as provisional party chairman, after former party leader Binyamin Ben-Eliezer retracted his threat to run against Peres for the title. Labor thus averted a potentially explosive inner crisis at the last minute, which according to some party figures could have led to an open split.

Peres is to serve for one year as temporary chairman of Labor, with elections for a permanent leader of the party and its candidate for prime minister now slated to take place in a year, on June 15, 2004. Peres has vowed to devote his year in office to resuscitating the ailing party, which suffers from internal demoralization and is on the verge of financial bankruptcy. Most veteran Peres observers doubt whether he will indeed make do with internal party affairs, however. The prospect of an advancing peace process will thus set the stage for a renewal of the partnership between the two grand old men of Israeli politics, Sharon and Peres, and would be widely interpreted as a tell-tale sign that things have indeed begun to change, arguably for the better.

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