by David Dolan
April 30, 2001
Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres will soon be heading to Washington to discuss Israel's response to an Egyptian-Jordanian ceasefire proposal, designed to lead to a resumption of political negotiations between the Palestinians and Israel. The US trip comes after leaders of both Arab countries warned on Sunday that the Middle East may be heading for a major conflict if violence between Palestinians and Israelis is not immediately halted. Israeli leaders expressed slight bewilderment when Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak announced at a press conference with Peres in Cairo that a ceasefire had already been agreed to by the warring parties. Peres then clarified that the two sides were in the final stages of discussing the terms of such a ceasefire, but that nothing had been finalized yet. Palestinian leaders confirmed this as well, with negotiator Saeb Erekat telling Palestinian radio today that no deal has been struck. "Israel is trying to deceive the world into thinking it has accepted the Egyptian-Jordanian proposals, but that is not the case," he said. The main sticking point seems to be a Palestinian attempt to mix political negotiating demands in with the ceasefire terms, such as calling for an Israeli pre-commitment to halt all building in disputed settlements. Israel wants the ceasefire deal to only focus on a escalation of hostilities, with political negotiations to follow in a month's time if the ceasefire actually holds. Meanwhile Israel continues to ease conditions in Palestinian-ruled zones, with more workers receiving permits to cross Israel's pre-1967 borders and Palestinian fishermen again being allowed to work off of the Gaza Mediterranean coast.
Opposition to the potential ceasefire pact has been expressed by both Palestinian and Israeli officials. Several Israeli cabinet ministers said it was a serious mistake for Peres to once again place trust in Yasser Arafat, who has broken his word many times. Infrastructure Minister Avigdor Lieberman said Arafat was nothing more than "the twin of the Saudi terrorist mastermind Osama Bin Laden." Even greater opposition to the pending deal is being expressed on the Palestinian side, especially by Hamas and Islamic Jihad leaders. Arafat's security forces arrested Hamas activist Abdel Rantisi on Sunday after he pledged that Muslim militants would never lay down their arms, even if ordered to by Palestinian Authority leaders. Israeli political analysts say the pending ceasefire pact may be a test by the Sharon government to see if Arafat is still in control of his autonomy zones, or if the radical Muslim groups and their foreign backers like Iran are now basically running the show. If Arafat can halt most of the violence that he has actively promoted for the past seven months, and if quiet prevails for at least a period of four weeks, then Sharon is willing to resume political negotiations. However, if shooting and terror attacks continue--as some analysts say Sharon fully expects--then nothing will come of the Egyptian-Jordanian initiative, and a further escalation of the conflict can be expected.
Another issue holding up a final ceasefire deal is Arafat's demand that peace talks begin exactly where they left off at the Sinai resort of Taba in January. But Sharon has already made abundantly clear that he will not agree to start negotiations where the previous Barak government left off. The new Israeli leader will never offer the far-reaching concessions that were put on the table by his left-wing predecessor, especially the offer of Palestinian control over most parts of Jerusalem's walled Old City and the abandonment of many Israeli settlements located in Judaism's biblical heartland, the hills of Judea and Samaria. Peres made clear on Sunday that if Arafat sticks to his current demand that Barak's offer must be Israel's formal opening negotiating position, then no ceasefire pact will be concluded.
Amid all the diplomatic bustle, violence continues to rock the disputed territories. Palestinian gunmen opened fire at an Israeli vehicle traveling on the Trans-Samaria highway north of Jerusalem this morning, causing damage but no casualties. A group of Palestinians in a car tried to force their way through an Israeli army roadblock in the same area, but were stopped by soldiers. One soldier was slightly injured when troops tried to arrest the Palestinian occupants, who fled on foot after their ramming attempt was thwarted. Israeli forces remain on alert for more terror attacks in the area after a suicide bomber blew himself up in his car near an Israeli schoolbus loaded with students yesterday morning. Officials said heavy armor plating on the bus prevented any Jewish casualties. Shooting attacks were also reported in several other locations late yesterday and overnight.
An alert bakery owner in the coastal town of Netanya prevented another potential tragedy Sunday morning when he spotted a large bomb planted in a paint can and quickly ordered his customers to evacuate his shop, which was severely damaged in the subsequent powerful explosion, along with a nearby bank. Palestinian mortar shells were also fired at a Jewish community in the Gaza Strip just before noon. Five Israeli teenagers were injured by flying glass after a shell exploded next to a youth center in another community, Netzer Hazani, on Saturday. The youth center had been built in memory of an American-immigrant soldier from the community who was killed in Lebanon several years ago. Arafat's PLO Fatah faction took responsibility for the mortar attack, and for several others launched over the weekend, but then retracted the claim. Israeli officials are certain that Arafat's men were indeed responsible for the shelling attacks. An Israeli driver from Netanya, traveling home with his family on the main road from Tiberius to the coast, was shot dead at close range on Saturday night after Arabs asked him for directions at a stop light. His wife was lightly wounded in the terrorist assault, which officials suspect was carried out by Islamic militants from the nearby Israeli Arab town of Umm el-Fahm. Officials say violent attacks, which subsided early last week, have escalated since Israelis began celebrating their annual Independence Day last Wednesday night, when Arab gunmen opened fire on the south Jerusalem neighborhood of Gilo.