January 5, 2006
Will Violence Again Flare Up in 2006?
Will the Palestinians start the new year with a renewal of violence?
That has been the question asked by many nervous Israelis in the final weeks of 2005, as the "truce" declared by Palestinian terrorist groups early last year came to an end.
True, there was never a complete cessation of violence. Islamic Jihad, which did not join in the truce, carried out several suicide bombings during the pact's nine-month stretch.
But the relative lull helped Prime Minister Ariel Sharon engineer the Gaza Strip withdrawal and is credited by the Shin Bet with a 60 percent decrease in Israeli casualties from terror during 2005.
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, who coaxed terrorist groups into observing the cease-fire he declared with Sharon last February, appealed for an extension.
"I think it is our interest that the truce continues, in order to have the opportunity to reconstruct our country and to make things take their ordinary course," he said last week during a fundraising trip to the United Arab Emirates.
Hamas, the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade and smaller factions have so far resisted the call.
According to last week's Shin Bet report, arms smuggling into Gaza has skyrocketed sixfold since Israel left during the summer. In the West Bank, terrorists have already test fired a rocket in a bid to emulate the tactics of their Gazan comrades.
But there may be a grace period in the works before the dreaded resurgence of violence comes. Hamas is running in Palestinian Authority parliamentary elections on Jan. 25 and has sought a more mainstream political profile. It is seen as unlikely to resort to major terrorism before the votes are in -- assuming, of course that the vote is not postponed.
Further complicating matters for the Palestinians is the speedy deterioration of Gaza into anarchy. Six foreigners have been kidnapped by gunmen there in recent days, belying Abbas' pledge to turn the coastal strip -- post-Israel -- into an orderly prototype for a future Palestine.
All of this means that the U.S.-led "road map" for peace could soon end up in tatters.
Sharon may be preparing for that eventuality. According to a front-page report in Ma'ariv, the prime minister has sent Israeli officials to propose to the United States that, following the Palestinian Authority election, the road map should be abandoned in favor of unilateral action.
Sharon wants President Bush's endorsement for Israel declaring a border that would include some West Bank land, while allowing for the creation of a temporary Palestinian state beyond, the newspaper said Monday.
"A wave of Hamas terrorism will thwart any hope" of progress in peacemaking, wrote Ma'ariv's editor in chief, Amnon Dankner, and its senior political correspondent, Ben Caspit.
The road map, they added, "looks like a dead end, which in effect provides Sharon with a fig leaf to cover up the new diplomatic path being planned in Jerusalem."
There was no immediate U.S. response, and a senior Israeli political source dismissed the article as" speculation."
But Sharon, who looks set for re-election in March, has made no secret of planning to settle the conflict with the Palestinians during a third term in office -- whether or not Abbas is a partner. Bush has already given his tacit approval to Israel's intention to hold on to major West Bank settlement blocs, making their eventual annexation a formality.
Which leaves the question of whether the Palestinians will launch a new terror war or make do with what territory they get, hoping for economic revival and some domestic stability.
In a rare vote of confidence for potential progress, Turkey plans to take over the Erez industrial zone on the Gaza-Israel border, a move that would provide employment opportunities to hundreds of Palestinians. Turkish Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul is due in the region later this week to sign the deal.
The Jerusalem Post reported that Ankara sees the initiative as a chance to boost its pull in Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking and has been undeterred by Gaza's recent cross-border violence.