Israelis and Palestinians may appear to be on the verge of a new peace process, but Israeli army generals and seasoned observers of the Palestinian scene predict a new round of fighting, perhaps as early as next fall, after Israel completes its withdrawal from the Gaza Strip and northern West Bank.
The generals point to continued weapons smuggling and other military preparations by Palestinians in both Gaza and the West Bank, while the Palestinian watchers see signs of growing discontent and radicalization among the Palestinian public.
According to military intelligence estimates, if there is a new eruption of terrorism it will come from the West Bank and could include Kassam rockets being fired at towns and cities inside Israel proper.
Writing in the newspaper Yediot Achronot, military analyst Alex Fishman says the Israel Defense Forces' central command, which is responsible for the West Bank, already is gearing up for a renewal of the intifada.
The thinking in army circles is that after the Israeli withdrawal the Palestinians will see Gaza as "liberated" but will view the West Bank, which still will have a strong Israeli military and settler presence, as "occupied," Fishman reports.
According to the army assessment, the Palestinians will have an interest in keeping the peace in Gaza to show that they can run their own affairs. But the West Bank will be an entirely different story.
With dozens of Israeli settlements and army camps still in place, the Palestinians will argue that they are fighting to end the occupation there, just as, in their view, they did in Gaza. And they will adopt the same model -- firing rockets at both military and civilian targets.
According to military intelligence, the Palestinians are making a major effort to obtain the materials they need to produce rockets in the West Bank, something that until now they have been able to do only in the Gaza Strip.
West Bank-based terrorists reportedly have placed large orders for weapons and explosives for the rockets from Bedouin smugglers. One of the routes to the West Bank would be from Egypt through Gaza; another would be directly from Jordan.
Moreover, army sources say, once the IDF withdraws from all West Bank cities, as it is set to do under the terms of the current lull, the Palestinians will be able to set up workshops and manufacture the rockets unhindered.
Fishman reports that the army sees the arms smuggling as a major threat and is doing all it can to block smugglers' routes. He says it has established a special unit to this end and taken steps to enhance intelligence- gathering capabilities among the Bedouin.
Appearing before the Knesset's Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee in late March, Military Intelligence Chief Maj. Gen. Aharon Ze'evi-Farkash confirmed that the Palestinian terrorists are trying to export technological know-how from Gaza to facilitate the manufacture of Kassam rockets in the West Bank.
Farkash added that despite a steep decline in current terrorist operations, the militias are enhancing their capabilities for future attacks. Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz also expressed concern.
During a visit to Washington, Mofaz said that Palestinians had smuggled Strella anti-aircraft rockets into the Gaza Strip, which he said "crosses a red line" for Israel. The Israeli fear is that if the Strellas are smuggled into the West Bank, they could be used against passenger planes taking off from Ben-Gurion Airport.
In addition, observers of the Palestinian scene report growing grass-roots frustration with the way the nascent peace process is developing. Israeli academics and Western diplomats whose work takes them into the West Bank note mounting popular discontent because ending the armed struggle so far has failed to change people's everyday lives, as they had hoped it would.
Menachem Klein, a Bar Ilan University expert on the Palestinians, sees signs of growing radicalization, which he believes could erupt soon in violence. Klein notes that twice, within two weeks in March, jailed Palestinian militia leader Marwan Barghouti smuggled letters out from his prison cell calling for a return to armed struggle.
Three months ago, Barghouti backed Mahmoud Abbas' candidacy for Palestinian Authority president, though Abbas' entire campaign was based on ending the armed struggle. Klein argues that Barghouti, with his sharp political sense, would not have written the new letters unless he felt there was considerable support for the views expressed.
"The fact that Barghouti is calling for a return to the armed struggle shows that something very profound is happening on the Palestinian street," Klein said.
Klein sees another expression of Palestinian radicalization in the way the secular Fatah Party and the fundamentalist Hamas movement, once divided by a huge ideological gulf, are growing closer. He notes that Hamas leaders are even calling for a "joint political program" -- which might tame Hamas, but more likely would radicalize the entire Palestinian movement.
The bottom line for Klein is that he believes there is no way Israel and the Palestinians will be able to conduct a successful peace process. In his view, the two leaders already are conducting a "dialogue of the deaf."
Abbas, he says, is only interested in negotiating a final peace deal, whereas Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon -- who believes the sides are too far apart on basic issues to strike a lasting deal -- insists on long-term interim arrangements instead.
There is no possible meeting point, Klein says.
"I see a great danger of a blow-up. I don't know when it will happen, but it's almost inevitable. It's in the DNA of the process," he said.
Not all observers agree that the process is doomed to failure. But if there is to be any chance of success, the two sides must solve a more fundamental problem: how to synchronize the rhythm of mutual concessions even before peace negotiations begin.
For now, Israel is reluctant to hand additional West Bank cities to P.A. control until the Palestinians carry out promised security reforms, while the Palestinians are reluctant to make the reforms until Israel hands over the cities. The Palestinians also have not moved on promises to take weapons from wanted terrorists in the cities already turned over to their control.
In an editorial, the left-leaning newspaper Ha'aretz suggests that Israel take the initiative.
"[Israel] must, to the best of its ability, contribute to the process that Abu Mazen is having difficulty in carrying out," it says, using Abbas' nom de guerre. "Even if such assistance often entails security risks."
In the meantime, leaders on both sides see no alternative but to contemplate the possibility of failure -- a state of mind, pundits warn, that could become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Leslie Susser is the diplomatic correspondent for the Jerusalem Report
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