Battle of Beit Jala Highlights Mideast Cease-fire Woes

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A flare glows over the West Bank town of Beit Jalla during exchange of fire

The Beit Jala misadventure highlights some of the obstacles to a "rolling cease-fire" between Israelis and Palestinians. Israel withdrew from the Bethlehem village before dawn on Thursday, following a local truce brokered by European diplomats. They had agreed to leave if Palestinian gunmen stopped firing on their positions and on the adjacent Israeli neighborhood of Gilo, although fierce fire fights into the night on Wednesday had placed the deal in jeopardy. But although it offered a face-saving exit from an operation that appeared to cause Israel more problems than it solved, and also revived the prospects for new talks that Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat has been desperate to launch, the Beit Jala deal remains precarious.

The truce is a practical example of the "rolling cease-fire" concept that Israeli foreign minister Shimon Peres and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat plan to discuss when they meet under German auspices in the near future — rather than trying to forge a comprehensive cease-fire throughout the West Bank and Gaza, the two sides would work towards such a cease-fire by establishing such agreements on a town-by-town basis. But as violence raged throughout the West Bank and Gaza, the potential for events elsewhere to reignite the battle of Beit Jala remained high.

Both sides are predictably proclaiming victory over the truce, with the Palestinians claiming to have driven the Israelis out by force of arms, while the Israelis insist their incursion had achieved its aim by ending shooting on Gilo. In truth, however, the Israelis didn't leave until firing stopped. By the same token, their incursion hadn't ended the firing on Gilo, it had actually intensified the attacks as Palestinian fighters streamed into the village to join the battle, adding mortars and heavy machine guns to the fray. The cease-fire was achieved less by the force of arms deployed by either side than the by the political and diplomatic crisis the standoff had provoked. Indeed, Tuesday's plea by Israeli defense minister Benjamin Ben Eliezer to foreign minister Peres to step up diplomatic efforts to resolve the Beit Jala crisis suggests that the military had found itself in something of a bind. Its presence had escalated rather than curbed the firing at Gilo, and a long-term reoccupation of the town would carry damaging political, diplomatic and security consequences. The U.S. had publicly warned Israel that it was breaking previous agreements and demanded a withdrawal.

The Israeli operation began late Monday, with the purpose of stopping a fusillade a sniper fire sparked by that day's assassination of radical Palestinian leader Abu Ali Mustafa. The shooting prompted Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to make good on a previous warning that Israel would not tolerate any further gunfire directed at Gilo, which Israel regards as part of Jerusalem but the Palestinians see as a settlement because it was built on land annexed after 1967. Beit Jala is a predominantly Christian Palestinian village that lies across a ravine within rifle range, and its residents have repeatedly complained to Arafat that they're exposed to great danger by Palestinian fighters who come into the area to fire at Gilo. On Monday they found themselves at the center of a pitched battle as Israeli tanks occupied the town center and imposed a curfew, while Palestinian militiamen streamed in to wage war.

While the firefights raged, the Beit Jala incursion was also hurting Israel diplomatically. A PR disaster followed reports of children huddling frightened in a Lutheran orphanage while Israeli soldiers took up firing positions in their building. The State Department specifically appealed for the safety of the children. Coming as it did on the heels of a similar reprimand over the fact that a family of Americans had been in the Ramallah building struck by the Israeli rockets that killed Abu Ali Mustafa on Monday, the Beit Jala incursion was clearly hurting Israel's image in the West. And the U.S. was using its strongest language to date to condemn the action.

Arafat has his own reasons for seeking a truce. Escalating violence is fast eroding his control of the Palestinian streets, and he has been pressing the Europeans to initiate new cease-fire talks with the Israelis in order to press for political concessions that could help him reclaim the initiative in Palestinian politics. But even if he has persuaded the gunmen in Beit Jala to hold their fire while the Israelis withdraw, the resultant truce will be extremely fragile.

The gunmen in Beit Jala, after all, are not from the village. They use it as a firing position because of its proximity to an Israeli neighborhood. On Monday they arrived to vent their rage over Israel's killing of Abu Ali Mustafa. Now they may be prepared to withdraw for a time. But it's a safe bet that when next they're looking to respond to some blow suffered elsewhere, Gilo will once again look like a tempting target — even more so for the diplomatic crisis the resultant battle will provoke.