Just three months after it was ushered in at a peace summit in February, there are growing signs that the cease-fire between Israel and the Palestinians may be on the verge of collapse.
There has been a dramatic increase in the number of terrorist attacks in the Gaza Strip, there are fears that tensions between Hamas and the Palestinians' ruling Fatah movement could spill over into violence against Israel and an ongoing spate of mutual recriminations is straining relations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority.
So far, the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) have been showing restraint, even in the face of renewed Palestinian shelling of Israeli civilians. But if there is more shelling, and especially if it causes fatalities, Israel is likely to retaliate and the situation could spiral out of control.
The cease-fire began well enough. In the immediate aftermath of the summit in Sharm el-Sheik, Egypt, terrorist attacks tapered off in February and March. There also was renewed coordination between Israeli and Palestinian Authority forces, and some P.A. success in curbing terrorism, including the uncovering of about 20 weapons-smuggling tunnels on the Egypt-Gaza border.
However in April, the trend was reversed. Coordination declined, and there was an exponential rise in the number of terrorist attacks. According to IDF figures, in the last week of April alone, there were 48 terrorist operations in Gaza, including the firing of Kassam rockets at the Israeli town of Sderot a day after a wanted Palestinian terrorist was killed in the West Bank by Israeli forces.
Because of the upsurge in terrorism and his conviction that the Palestinian Authority is not doing enough to stop it, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon froze moves in early May to release 400 Palestinian prisoners. Sharon said he would release the prisoners only if the Palestinian Authority clamps down on terrorism.
The Palestinians retorted that gestures by Israel, such as releasing the prisoners, would enhance their ability to curb terrorism, and charged that the Israeli government seemed to have no idea how important the prisoner issue is to the Palestinian people as a symbol of their national struggle.
Fatah warned Sharon of dire consequences. Hamas was more explicit, threatening a return to terrorism.
P.A. Foreign Minister Nasser al-Kidwa sent an urgent message to the diplomatic quartet shepherding the "road map" peace plan -- the United States, the European Union, the United Nations and Russia -- accusing Sharon of ignoring his Sharm el-Sheik commitment to release prisoners and hand over West Bank cities to P.A. control.
After turning two cities over to the Palestinians, Israel froze the handover of three more, because the Palestinians ignored the security commitments they undertook as a condition for the handover.
Recent tensions between Fatah and Hamas also threaten the cease-fire. Israeli analysts say a serious falling out could lead Hamas to attack Israel in defiance of the Fatah-inspired cease-fire. Hamas is threatening to renew violence against Israel on a variety of pretexts:\n
• If Fatah tries to overturn recent election results in Palestinian municipalities, where Hamas made major gains.\n
• If Fatah defers legislative elections scheduled for July 17.\n
• If Israel targets Hamas operatives.\n
• If Israel doesn't release Palestinian prisoners.
There also are internal differences in Hamas that analysts say could prove destabilizing. Some leading Hamas figures, who would like to see the group do well in legislative elections and become a major political force, have an interest in maintaining the cease-fire, at least for the next few months.
Others, who want to torpedo Israel's planned summer withdrawal from Gaza and the northern West Bank, are seeking to provoke an early end to the lull. Rogue militias, responsible for most of the latest terrorism in Gaza, reportedly are being run by this more militant Hamas wing.
Senior officers in the IDF's Southern Command say these groups plan to step up terror attacks before the withdrawal and make sure it takes place under fire.
That's a nightmare scenario the IDF wants to avoid at all costs, and to avoid it, the army has contingency plans for a huge operation in Gaza. Defense sources say it would be similar to Operation Defensive Shield in 2002, when Israel recaptured all Palestinian cities and towns in the West Bank in response to massive terrorism.
To shore up the brittle peace process, P.A. President Mahmoud Abbas is calling for an urgent meeting with Sharon.
"There is a need for a meeting between Sharon and me to push the peace process forward," he declared in early May. "We must discuss implementation of the agreements between us."
Ahead of the proposed meeting, Labor ministers in the Israeli Cabinet urged Sharon to make major gestures to the Palestinians, hoping this would strengthen Abbas' position and give him confidence to clamp down on terrorist groups. The Labor view has the backing of Maj. Gen. Aharon Ze'evi Farkash, IDF military intelligence chief, who, in an unusually outspoken radio interview in early May, declared that what happens on the Palestinian side is not unconnected to what Israel and the United States do.
The inference was clear: Military Intelligence would like to see the government free Palestinian prisoners and hand over more West Bank cities to the Palestinian Authority, moves it believes would help counter rising terrorism.
The Shin Bet security service takes the opposite view. It argues that the Palestinians first must show they are willing to keep prior commitments to fight terrorism, or handing over cities merely will create a breeding ground for more serious violence.
So far, Sharon is listening to the Shin Bet. He told the Cabinet on Sunday that he was being pressed to bolster Abbas, but that he couldn't do that "at the cost of Israeli lives."
Sharon believes that holding back the transfer of cities and the release of prisoners can serve as a lever to pressure the Palestinians to act against terrorism.
The clash between Sharon and the Shin Bet on one side and the Labor ministers and military Intelligence on the other highlights the Israeli dilemma: Can Israel induce the Palestinians to fight terrorism by playing tough or by making gestures?
So far, neither approach has worked in the dozen years since the Oslo process began. Toughness makes the Palestinians defiant, while concessions are pocketed but then derided as insufficient.
In the meantime, the situation on the ground seems to be creating a potentially explosive vicious circle: Israel makes concessions, but the Palestinians do not fight terrorism seriously. As a result, Israel cancels additional gestures. This is said to weaken Abbas' position, leading to even less Palestinian action against terrorism, and eventually the peace process breaks down.How to break the cycle will top the agenda if, as seems likely, Sharon and Abbas meet soon.
Leslie Susser is the diplomatic correspondent for the Jerusalem Report.
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