Calm before the storm?

Will the Israel-Palestine dispute erupt in violence again? Like everyone else, reports KESAVA MENON, extremists on either side appear to be waiting to see what negotiations produce.

IN THE early hours of Sunday, August 27, a night-clerk at a central Tel Aviv hotel turned around to pull out some papers and revealed the automatic pistol tucked into his waistband. Is that still necessary, he was asked. Bomb blasts had ripped a bus in the Dizengoff square just next door only a few years ago and therefore such precautions were necessary, he said with strong personal conviction.

That night, troops of an elite Israeli counter-terrorism unit named Duvdevan (the Hebrew word for cherry) surrounded the village of Assariya Samhaliya in the northern West Bank in an area where they are allowed under agreements to exercise overall security control. Their intelligence services had pinpointed that the top-most Hamas militant, Mahmoud Abu Hanoun, was holed up in the village. The cherry unit which apparently has wide powers to decide how to tackle any operation had been activated to get him. In the event, the operation went horribly wrong. The troops did manage to wound Hanoun and the person in whose house he had taken shelter. But they could not prevent Hanoun's escape and, worse still, they killed three of their own and wounded another in friendly fire.

Hanoun escaped the dragnet one more time and got himself to a hospital in the wholly-Palestinian controlled town of Nablus. Palestinian security services took him into custody and he will probably soon be tried in a Palestinian court that hands down quick and harsh sentences. Israel made an initial demand that Hanoun be handed over to it but subsequently appears to be satisfied that the Palestinian justice system will hand down a sentence that it can live with. Meanwhile, the villagers of Shamaliya were celebrating one of the rare occasions when a Palestinian militant had got the better of one of Israel's elite security units.

From these dissimilar and un-related events it might appear that nothing has changed in the Israeli-Palestinian equation. Armed vigilance, the occasional strikes and the celebrations when your own side scores a victory. Yet in the wake of this particular incident at Shamaliya came the reports of how cooperation between Israeli and Palestinian security services had foiled over a hundred terrorism-related plots over the past many months. This does not necessarily mean that there is seamless coordination between the two security forces nor is there very open acknowledgement of their assistance to each other. Though there might even be some bonhomie between the respective troops at the operational level, neither security apparatus will gain any political mileage by publicly acclaiming their cooperation.

The relationship of professional cooperation that currently appears to exist between the security forces of the two sides need not last forever. It is conceivable that the very same security forces will be fighting each other if the negotiations collapse without any hope of recovery and the rage of the public spills over. The balance of power between the two sides is such that the Palestinians will inevitably believe themselves to be the aggrieved party should the negotiations collapse. Circumstances and history suggest that the first spark of violence will rise on the Palestinian side. But it also suggests that the Israeli reaction will be as tough as it has been. If the negotiations collapse beyond the irrecoverable point, the violence will almost inevitably drag in the Palestinian security forces. Then it will be war between two heavily armed forces though Israel, as ever, will have the overwhelming advantage.

It is almost axiomatic in journalism relating to the Israel- Palestinian dispute that allusions to the possibility of violence should never be obscured. However, for the moment, the authorised military forces of either side are clearly not just waiting for their political leadership to complete the negotiations but hoping that they will do so. In fact, the two hard-men of the Palestinian security services, Mahmoud Dahlan and Jibril Rajoub, are reputed to be amongst the foremost advocates of the view that the negotiations must be persisted with. From what could be seen in the Palestinian-controlled territories it did not appear that their security forces were making the sort of overt preparations for violence that could by itself provide a provocation.

Subsequent to the Shamaliya incident, the Israeli media has reported about the efforts by Abu Hanoun and like-minded individuals to set off bomb-attacks or drive-by shootings. This dovetails with the concern in Israel's official circles that the Palestinian political forces opposed to a settlement on the basis of the presently discernible parameters will do something to disrupt the negotiations. In a recent interview to The New York Times, Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, spiritual head of Hamas, appeared to indicate that he would not authorise a militant strike till the negotiations produced a Palestinian state or unless the possibility of a state was nullified for ever. However, there is concern in Israel that some regional powers that are opposed to a settlement between the Palestinians and Israel might provoke a bout of violence.

It has become so common to talk about the possibility of violence from the Palestinian side that not much thought is being publicly aired about the likelihood of violence by Israeli extremists. After all, those who have dreamed of a Greater Israel, stretching from the Mediterranean Sea to the Jordan river, are the ones who will have their dreams shattered if a Palestinian state arises in a part of those territories. The sort of violent rhetoric that was characteristic of the Israeli extremists has not been very evident of late but that need not mean that their violent intentions have been extinguished. Like everyone else the extremists on either side appear to be waiting to see what negotiations produce.

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