Nablus Firefight Exposes a Flaw in Peace Efforts

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Yasser Arafat may be having a hard time keeping Palestinian militants in line with his latest cease-fire agreement, but Ehud Barak could find his own plans to tamp down the violence being second-guessed by Israeli settlers. With Israel's deadline for an end to the violence due to expire Friday amid the noontime Muslim prayers that have often touched off fresh waves of rage, the tenuous cease-fire reached at Sharm el-Sheik is under new strain following a firefight that raged into the night near Nablus Thursday. The incident, in which one Palestinian and one Israeli were killed and a number of people were wounded on both sides, appears to have begun as an armed confrontation between Israeli settlers and Palestinian civilians, but quickly drew in Palestinian police and Israeli soldiers and helicopter gunships. Explanations of how the clash began, as always, depend on which side is doing the explaining, but what is clear is that a confrontation between two groups of civilians quickly drew in the security forces on each side despite their attempts at a cease-fire. And that highlights the difficulties of keeping the peace in Palestinian territories still heavily populated with armed Israeli settlers.

Although Israel has never tried to formally annex the West Bank and Gaza after capturing them in 1967, it began confiscating Palestinian land and building Israeli settlements from the 1970s onward in order to create "facts on the ground" in any future peace negotiations. Those facts on the ground now include some 120,000 Israeli settlers dotted throughout the West Bank and a further 5,000 in Gaza — territory that Israel, by the logic of the Oslo peace process, ultimately intends to cede to a Palestinian state. Needless to say the settlers, who are predominantly armed ideologues laying claim to what they see as the biblical Land of Israel regardless of Palestinian ownership or international law, have little interest in seeing through the peace process. And the present hair-trigger climate certainly gives the more reckless among them plenty of opportunity to subvert it. In 1994, Hebron settler Baruch Goldstein tried to do just that by massacring 29 Palestinians in a religious shrine before being beaten to death, and his action is still celebrated annually by sections of the settler community as an act of martyrdom — even though the Israeli army earlier this year bulldozed a shrine to the killer. The presence of the settlers also gives Palestinian militants an easy target for their own efforts to rekindle violence. Those on either side who may be looking to provoke confrontation don't have to look very far for a firefight. And firefights inevitably draw in both sides' security forces.

The future of the settlers, of course, had been one of the outstanding sticking points in the peace process that could not be resolved at Camp David. The Palestinians want the settlements dismantled and removed from their territory, and Barak was set to propose instead an expanded bloc of settlements in parts of the West Bank adjacent to Jerusalem, in exchange for removing the others — or at least removing the settlements' Israeli military protection and offering them the choice of staying on under Palestinian jurisdiction or moving into Israeli territory. To be sure, the recent violence has highlighted a perception that maintaining Jewish enclaves inside Palestinian territories may be untenable in a future peace agreement. But right now nobody's talking about a final peace agreement, anyway. In fact, as of Thursday night, they were still shooting.