Stalemate and Revenge Cycle in Israel

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Israeli tanks arrive in the Etzion Bloc Jewish settlement area

This week saw increased military action in Israel and the West Bank. Palestinians fired a mortar attack onto disputed land within the borders of Jerusalem. Israeli military forces, meanwhile, positioned troops and tanks around West Bank hot spots, and an Apache helicopter fired a missile into a Bethlehem house, killing four and wounding more. Thursday the foreign ministers of the G8 countries, including U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell, issued a statement backing the deployment of outside monitors in the region. spoke to TIMEís Jerusalem bureau chief, Matt Rees, and to Jamil Hamad, TIME correspondent in Bethlehem, about the increasingly tense situation. There seems to be an increasing sense of inevitability as the violence mounts. What are you seeing on the street? Whatís the attitude?

Matt Rees: It depends on what street youíre walking on. In Bethlehem people are extremely angry and not particularly frightened by the build up of Israeli troops close to that town. In Jerusalem or Tel Aviv it hasnít changed all that much — there is a step up in the feeling of insecurity among Israelis, but that tends to get increased much more by a large suicide attack rather than violence in the West Bank.

Jamil Hamad: The feeling is one of anger, frustration and spirit of revenge. I think the size or the amount of patience has been cut short. And the assumption that there is a light at the end of the tunnel is not existing.

I think the Palestinians and Israelis are back on square one, which started in the forties and fifties. Now they are referring to each other as enemies. The only communication between them is hostility, everybody is hostile to the other side

Is there a middle ground any more? Where are the moderates?

Matt Rees: Moderates on both sides have pretty much headed right, from the start of the whole thing. People who were on the left, in many cases, also headed way right. There really isnít much left in terms of people who are trying to push to get back to where things were before the intifada. A moderate position now on the Israeli side would be to argue that if you canít go back to where things were before the intifada, at least go back to negotiations. A moderate position on the Palestinian side would be to shut up, because there would be a real threat of opening yourself up to accusations of being traitor if you spoke in favor of ending the violence — thereís a real sense among the palest of being under attack.

Jamil Hamad: Moderates now are in a very difficult situation — how could you explain your moderate ideals when the Israelis are making the lives of the ordinary Palestinians hell? We are not talking about politics, about border disputes and negotiations; we are talking about daily lives. The Israelis are doing a great damage to their reputation by punishing the Palestinians to their bones. So there is no room for moderation in such situations, because the Israelis are not giving the ordinary man and woman on the street any chance to say to him/herself "hey, this is a dispute between Arafat and Sharon." But whatís happening on the ground is that itís a dispute between every Israeli and Palestinian, and this is unfair.

The weapons being used now are more and more warlike — what has prompted that change?

Matt Rees: After this week, the cease-fire (which had been pretty much nothing more than a notion) is really off the agenda. Weíre basically back to where things were before Colin Powell came a few weeks ago, where both sides are suggesting that they should proceed according to the Mitchell Report, but have different interpretations of how that process begins, and no one is terribly close to resolving that.

Jamil Hamad: The kind of weapons used at this stage reflect that the Palestinians and Israelis are getting into a more sophisticated conflict. Itís no more throwing stones at cars, now they are exchanging mortars and missiles.

What does the intensification mean for the current situation?

Matt Rees: Nothingís likely to change right now. From the outside that seems like an inexplicable statement — thereís all this violence, surely someone must want it to end. But both peoples here see it as you canít just end something at any cost, because in six months, a year, 100 years people would be paying the price for your weakness now. So while they would argue that they want to see an end to it they wonít do it at any cost.

So when you look at things happening in the course of a week, it seems really inconclusive. It really is something of a stalemate right now. Theyíre punching around in a sack that theyíre tied into, and they canít get out of it.

Jamil Hamad: I think the situation has reached a point that you need an outside element to force both sides to respect the agreement. The cease-fire is dead. But I have a big doubt about the possibility of the United States doing this or the capability of Europe, so I see a continuation of this conflict in one way or another.

Itís becoming a situation where every side has to prove that heís capable of hurting the other side. This is how the Palestinians think: "You send your Apache in to kill my people? Well, Iím capable of sending my bombers to Israeli cities and towns and killing people there."

So what can be done? Could Arafat take stronger control and try to stop the suicide bombers, to stop the revenge cycle?

Matt Rees: Itís fairly clear that he doesnít want the suicide bombers to go into Israel. Itís also clear that he doesnít particularly want to do anything to stop the attacks on settlers and soldiers in the West Bank and Gaza.

So the question that comes to mind is one thatís been going on throughout the intifada and not changing. The Israelis and Americans want him to arrest the Hamas people. He either doesnít want to or canít. Maybe he believes it would make him look weak, and perhaps doesnít want to because he wants to be able to unleash the violence on the Israelis, or at least threaten it — he can say "I canít control them, itís not me, I condemn the bombings."

Jamil Hamad: Both sides are making mistakes. There is no angel and devil. But I think what is needed is an understanding of the nature of the conflict. If you want Arafat to control the situation, you have to give him something political — for example, lifting the closure, giving freedom of movement, helping him with the unemployment in the West Bank and Gaza. They are facing huge economic problems — I can say after what I have seen in Gaza is that there is starvation there.

There's a problem with what outsiders seeÖ Itís easy from Detroit or Chicago for both sides to make fiery statements. But I think in the situation here, what is needed is an understanding. They know everything, the Americans, but they donít understand it.