The Middle East continues its descent into violence. The immediate task is ending the bloodshed that has occurred throughout Palestinian territory and restoring order. The question hovering over the carnage is whether the peace process can be resurrected. Nearly 100 people have been killed in a little over two weeks; trust between Palestinians and Israelis must also be counted among the victims.
This bloody spiral began 16 days ago, when Mr. Ariel Sharon, leader of Israel’s rightwing Likud Party and a figure hated by Arabs and Palestinians, visited the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. The site is sacred to both Muslims and Jews; Mr. Sharon’s presence, and his huge contingent of bodyguards, was seen as a provocation by Palestinians who rioted afterward. The violence escalated as Israel brought increasingly heavy force to bear against Palestinians and the death toll mounted. Scenes of children being shot and killed, apparently by Israeli forces, were broadcast on television and further fanned the flames.
Then, last week, two Israeli reservists were killed and mutilated by a Palestinian mob. In response, Israel launched helicopter rocket attacks against Palestinian buildings, including the residential compound of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. Many of those scenes were broadcast to the world.
The violence that has erupted is reminiscent of the worst of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. There is the justifiable fear that this episode has set the clock back to a time before the 1993 Oslo accords that launched the peace process. Those agreements called for the gradual implementation of reciprocal steps between Israel and Palestinians, in an attempt to build confidence before tackling the toughest issues, most notably the status of Jerusalem. The events of the last two weeks have destroyed whatever trust was built during those seven years.
There are no voices of moderation in either camp. Some counsel restraint, but they do so out of fear, not out of respect. Prime Minister Ehud Barak has called for an emergency government of national unity with Mr. Sharon. Given the Arab regard for Mr. Sharon, such a move could well be “the death kiss to the peace process,” as a Palestinian negotiator described it.
It may already be dead, however. Ever since the failed Camp David meeting earlier this year, when Mr. Barak’s historic offer to share control over Jerusalem was not reciprocated by Mr. Arafat, there has been growing skepticism about the Palestinian leader’s ability to make hard choices. His seeming willingness to use Palestinian anger and unrest to strengthen his hand in negotiations with Mr. Barak has further hurt his credibility. If Mr. Arafat cannot control the streets, then his position is even weaker. Last week, dozens of Islamic militants were released from Palestinian jails, sparking fears of a resumption of terrorism. That would prompt a still-harsher crackdown by the Israelis.
Mr. Barak can be criticized for the excessive level of force that Israeli security forces used in the early days of the uprising. The sheer number of Palestinian fatalities — nearly all the casualties have been Palestinians — suggests that Israel may have overreacted at first. But the barbaric lynching of the Israeli reservists deserves international condemnation. Bringing their killers to justice is a first step in rebuilding trust.
The photographs of that incident horrified the world. They hardened the hearts of many Israelis; opinion polls now show a majority of Israelis feel they do not have a partner with whom they can negotiate. But the images also show how the conflict has changed. In the past, violence was reported, but rarely seen. Now, the fact that there is Palestinian territory and media outlets shifts international perceptions of the conflict.
As a result, there is an even greater danger that the violence will spread beyond Israel and the Palestinian territory. Moderate Arab governments in the region are concerned that their citizens’ sympathy for the Palestinian cause could create unrest in their countries. The terrorist attack on the U.S. Navy vessel in Yemen, which has reportedly claimed 17 lives, is proof of how easily the violence can spread.
The only way to stop that threat is to resume discussions between Israelis and Palestinians. Both sides must agree to a truce, restore order and assess the situation. Committees of inquiry must be established, the killers of the Israeli soldiers brought to justice. Two weeks of violence have undone many of the gains of the last few years. Now, however, both sides know what abandoning the peace process would mean. That is small consolation for all that has transpired, but if it sobers the participants and inspires them to redouble efforts to create real peace, then some good may come of this tragedy after all.
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