It is difficult to see any end to the cycle of violence that has convulsed the Middle East. A series of bomb attacks by terrorists and targeted strikes by the Israeli military are the most recent escalations in a conflict that began nearly two months ago. Yet, there are indications that both sides are growing weary of war. The conflagration is not going to burn itself out, but Israeli and Palestinian leaders seem to recognize that their responses thus far have achieved little. It is time to take a new approach, to return to serious negotiation and commence the slow and difficult process of confidence-building between the two governments.
Eight weeks of unrest have claimed some 270 lives, the vast majority of them Palestinians. In an attempt to halt the violence, Israel has sealed off Palestinian territories and blocked the transfer of funds, a move that ensures that even nonpolitical Palestinians will suffer. The United Nations estimates the blockade prevents $3.4 million from going to the territories each day; total losses to the Palestinian economy have surpassed $425 million.
The violence reached a more terrifying level with the detonation of several bombs against Israeli targets. On Monday, a bomb attack on a Jewish-settler school bus left two adults dead and nine wounded, the majority of them children. Two days later, terrorists set off a car bomb by remote control in the city of Hadera in northern Israel that left at least two dead and more than 50 injured.
Three hours before that bombing, Israeli troops opened fire on a car carrying a Palestinian militia chief accused of coordinating attacks against Israel, killing him and three others in the car. The Palestinians called it an assassination. The Israeli military confirmed as much by saying it was aimed at “striking against those responsible for the attacks.” The world waits for the next atrocity.
There are two glimmers of hope in this otherwise grim recitation. The first was the decision by the Israeli Security Cabinet to stay its response to the car bombing. The group is divided about the wisdom of further escalation. Rather than authorize action, it has left matters in the hands of Prime Minister Ehud Barak, who also serves as defense minister.
The second positive development was the revelation that senior Palestinians and Israelis met Thursday in an effort to end the violence. At the meeting, high-level officials agreed to implement immediately the Sharm El Shiekh summit accords that had been agreed in October. They require Israel to re-open Gaza airport, lift the closure of borders, pull back its troops and end the economic sanctions. The Palestinians are to stop all violence and incitements to violence.
The international community is stepping up efforts to bring the two sides back to the negotiating table. In addition to daily communications with leaders of both governments, the United States has proposed a new “mechanism” for implementing the Sharm El Shiekh accords. In an attempt to regain lost credibility with the Palestinians, which accuses the U.S. of siding with Israel throughout the conflict, Washington has criticized Israel’s excessive use of force. European Union officials are also meeting with regional leaders.
And, in an attempt to underscore the damage that is being done to Israel’s international standing, Egypt recalled its ambassador from Tel Aviv and Jordan refuses to send its newly appointed ambassador to the Jewish state. Both governments made clear that the suspension of diplomatic relations would continue until Israel halted its “aggression against the Palestinian people.” These two countries with which Israel made peace are its key links with the Arab world.
The most important links are with the Palestinians, however. The news that talks between the two sides are continuing is encouraging. The announcement that Israel is closing the 10 liaison offices for Israeli and Palestinian security officials is not. The offices were common rooms in police stations where field commanders met to plan joint operations. The Israeli government ordered the move after an Israeli Army officer was killed and another soldier critically wounded when a bomb went off in the office in the southern Gaza Strip. It was the last remaining channel of regular communications.
It seems that the leadership in both countries is recognizing that violence cannot resolve their problems. Israel cannot pound the Palestinians into submission; nor will Israel concede to terror. Terrorists may take heart from the lessons of South Lebanon, but the analogy is not exact. Both governments know that once the men of violence take the initiative, they are unlikely to give it up. Call it wisdom or call it battle fatigue. Either way, it could bring this dark period to a close.
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