With US President Bill Clinton headed for the sidelines, Israeli and Palestinians negotiators have engaged in direct talks again in recent days, but there is little progress to report on either security or political issues. Both sides admit the gaps are too wide to conclude a "declaration of principles" before Clinton leaves office, and the immediate goal may be simply to prevent a fresh flare-up in his last week out of respect for the out-going American president.
On board Air Force One early Friday morning, Clinton all but conceded any hopes for a last-gasp Mideast peace agreement by January 20, saying it would most likely be up to President-elect George W. Bush to try to reach a deal. "Whatever happens will be the responsibility of the next administration and the winner of the Israeli election, whoever that may be," said Clinton.
Clinton added that "it was quite significant, actually, even though it came six days later than I wanted it to, that the Palestinians have now agreed in principle with the parameters" for a peace agreement he set out in late December. "So at least this Israeli government and the Palestinian Authority have agreed to the parameters," he stated.
Meanwhile, direct talks intensified in the region, with high-level delegations meeting again late last night at the Erez crossing into Gaza. The Israeli team was headed by Foreign Minister Shlomo Ben-Ami, who dropped plans to meet with French President Jacques Chirac and US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and dramatically dashed back from Paris to Gaza.
On Saturday night, Israeli Cabinet minister Shimon Peres is expected to hold discussions with PLO chief Yasser Arafat, while the principles in last night's bilateral talks are scheduled for another round then as well. But both sides still have wide differences over the Clinton "outline of principles." The Palestinians refuse to accept Clinton's ideas on the "right of return" for Palestinian refugees, while both sides have raised objections to his terms for resolving disputes over Jerusalem, territorial compromise and security arrangements.
Both Peres and Israeli negotiator Amnon Lipkin-Shahak concurred today that there likely will be no agreement either before Clinton leaves office or before Israel's election on February 6. But Israeli sources said that the sides are aiming to reach an agreement on the framework of talks to take place after Clinton is gone. There also was no word when US special Mideast envoy Dennis Ross would make his last trip to the region, which was indefinitely postponed on Wednesday by Clinton himself.
US and Israeli officials say they are looking for the renewed security talks to bring about a reduction in Palestinian violence before substantive negotiations resume, and cautioned it is too early to tell whether there has been any impact on the ground. Some media reports noted a "lull" in the clashes and pointed to a partial lifting of IDF closures on Friday morning as a sign of progress.
Four border crossings in Gaza and Judea/Samaria were re-opened, and Palestinians with VIP cards are once again being allowed to travel unrestricted between the PA and Israeli areas. Israel also reopened the Gaza airport this morning, for daytime flights only, in accordance with the new understandings. Palestinian sources said that joint patrols would also resume soon. But clashes erupted again today, and reports of forward movement are mixed.
On FRIDAY afternoon, a 16-year-old Palestinian was killed in Hebron during a gunfight between the IDF and Palestinians forces. According to eye witness reports and the IDF, the youth, Shakar Hemouny from eastern Jerusalem, threw a makeshift grenade at soldiers and also had a gun in his hand.
The incident disrupted the recent relative calm in Judea/Samaria and Gaza, although a number of shooting incidents did take place between the IDF and Palestinians during Thursday and Friday. In clashes that began last night, Palestinians fired on the settlements of Psagot, Beit Haggai and Gadid, at IDF outposts next to the Rafiah and Karni crossings, and on the industrial zone of Neve Dekalim. Severe clashes were also reported at the Ayyosh Junction. There were also minor clashes on the Temple Mount today, after police allowed fuller access for Muslims.
Although THURSDAY was described as one of the quietest days since the beginning of the intifada, clashes nevertheless broke out. Palestinian violence included rock-throwing, roadblocks, and rioting in several locations in YESHA, as well as a grenade in Kalkilya, an explosion at Adam Junction, and shootings at cars on the Alon Highway and in Samaria. Security officials were hesitant to comment on the temporary lull, saying it was too early to tell whether the PA was making determined efforts to restore calm. The IDF did say that the PA has been making efforts to prevent armed activists from shooting at soldiers and settlers.
On WEDNESDAY, while the number of shooting incidents was noticeably lower than on previous days, Palestinians fired at Israeli vehicles near Eilon Moreh and Kadim, at army patrols in Gaza and the Ayyosh Junction, and into Hebron, Psagot and Einav in Jerusalem, where there was a heavy exchange of fire. Elsewhere, stone-throwers attacked Jewish villages.
At a Hamas rally in Nablus, several hundred Palestinians, including dozens of armed and masked men, held a protest march, calling on the PA to continue the intifada and efforts to ensure the return of all refugees to Israel.
Back on TUESDAY, there were numerous shooting incidents in the Bethlehem region throughout the day, with shots fired at IDF patrols and civilian cars near Beit Sahour and Al Hader. At the Nahal Oz checkpoint in Gaza, one of at least two roadside bombs exploded aside IDF bomb-sapping equipment. IDF soldiers shot at a suspicious figure fleeing the scene. Palestinians also fired at an IDF force west of Tulkarm, at a civilian bus traveling near Ofra, and at Neve Dekalim in Gaza.
Tuesday morning, soldiers were forced to fire live ammunition to disperse a massive stone-throwing riot by Palestinians at an Israeli bus near a north Samarian village. Palestinians said a man was mortally wounded.
A Palestinian man died on Tuesday from gunshot wounds sustained Monday night. He had been part of a group throwing stones at Israeli cars near Hares. Soldiers were unable to disperse the crowd with rubber bullets because of the distance. An IDF spokesman said an army medic offered to treat the man, but was prevented from doing so by Palestinian stone throwers.
Security forces overnight detained four Palestinians in the village of Hussan near Bethlehem. The four were suspected of being responsible for terror activities against soldiers and civilians.
Tuesday afternoon, two Palestinians were arrested in a planned operation near Beit Sahour. The Abayat brothers are said to be key Fatah "Tanzim" militia commanders in the area and are suspected of being involved in numerous shooting incidents, including firing at Gilo. Last November their brother, Hussein Abayat, top Fatah commander in the region, was killed in a helicopter missile strike. Gun battles in the area followed the arrest, and lasted for several hours.
Finally, the PA has sentenced to death a Gaza resident who was found guilty of being a "traitor" for collaborating with Israel. The Arab man allegedly helped Israeli security forces in the November killing of a Fatah leader in the Gaza Strip who had been responsible for a long list of shootings and bombings in the region during the past two months. An ARMY RADIO report said the death sentence was handed down only after the approval of Arafat.
Used with Permission from International Christian Embassy Jerusalem.