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Middle East: Peace Hopes Sink As Israel, Palestinians At Loggerheads Again

Palestinian Authority President Mahmud Abbas (file photo) The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has again flared just as signs seemed to point toward a chance for peace. Only a week ago, Mahmud Abbas (aka Abu Mazen) was elected Palestinian Authority president on pledges of renewed dialogue with Israel. But the goodwill between the two sides has already broken down, with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon freezing all contacts following a bloody attack by Palestinian militants.

Prague, 17 January 2005 (RFE/RL) -- The surprising element in the latest Israeli-Palestinian standoff is perhaps not that things went wrong, but that they went wrong so quickly.

Only a week ago, new Palestinian Authority President Abbas was talking about the need for a "credible, serious peace process," about extending the "hand of friendship" to Israel and "seeking a mutual cease-fire to end this vicious circle" of violence.

But then on 13 January Palestinian militants attacked a crossing point from the Gaza Strip into Israel, killing six Israelis. That is a high number of fatalities by Israeli standards, and the reaction was immediate and far-reaching.

Prime Minister Sharon froze all ties with Abbas. Sharon subsequently complained that the new Palestinian authorities had not "lifted a single finger" against such militant groups as Hamas and Islamic Jihad.
Palestinian casualties are already on the rise, with eight Palestinians reported killed on 16 January alone.

Sharon also said he had given orders for troops to carry out unlimited operations against militants in the Gaza Strip.

"We see that the Palestinian leadership has not yet begun any operation to stop the terror," Sharon charged. "This situation cannot continue. The army and security apparatus have been instructed to increase the operations to bring a stop to terror and they will do so without restrictions and I emphasize without restrictions as long as the Palestinians don't do so. The operational level has been instructed to carry out any action, any action to stop the terror."

Palestinian casualties are already on the rise, with eight Palestinians reported killed on 16 January alone.

Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom said there's no time left for "excuses" from the Palestinian side.

"I do believe the era of Palestinians excuses has ended, and the time for words, as I've said, is past," Shalom said. "Now is the time for action; we would like them to do what needs to be done, and to implement their commitments in the road map [peace plan]."

Abbas has said that although he wants renewed peace efforts, he has no intention of trying to control the militants by force -- or for Palestinians to shed Palestinian blood, as he put it.

Palestinian Foreign Minister Nabil Sha'ath said yesterday that it's too simplistic to talk of rapping the knuckles of unruly groups.

"I understand that it is the responsibility of the Palestinian Authority to maintain law and order," Sha'ath said. "But the questions we are facing are much more than an internal law and order problem. It's a problem of a long-term occupation and a confrontation between the occupation forces and the Palestinian people that have gone too far."

The top Palestinian body -- the executive committee of the Palestine Liberation Organization -- has called on militants to stop attacks on Israel. The committee said such attacks harm the national interest and provide excuses to Israel to hit back.

However, the militants take a different view. Hamas and Islamic Jihad have said they cannot accept a cease-fire in view of continuing Israel actions. Mahmud al-Zahar, a Hamas leader in Gaza, recently made that point.

"We do not give anything for free and we do not take part in failed attempts," al-Zahar said. "We say that the occupation must end and once it does, then we can discuss issues, and how to fulfill our objectives."

Nevertheless, Abbas was expected to meet with representatives of the two groups today to discuss a possible cease-fire agreement.

But the hopes that had accompanied Abbas's election have faded for now.

Middle East analyst Yossi Meckelberg of the Royal Institute of Internatinal Affairs in London said the latest impasse is typical of the Israel-Palestinian dispute: one step forward and two backward.

"When it seems that something is happening, when one sees some signs of progress, it all goes backwards; that's one of the main problems of the political process: For a very long time now, it has always been hijacked by the extremists, and the relative moderates always fall into the same trap set by the extremists," Meckelberg said.

But Meckelberg told RFE/RL that strength can be shown by not reacting to provocations by extremists and by giving time to moderates on the other side.

Meckelberg said the Palestinian side must now go beyond mere verbal condemnation of militant attacks by militants, and do something. At the same time, he said, Israel must give Abbas time and also the capability to contain the militants.

Meckelberg said another ingredient for progress is the commitment of the international community to helping both Israelis and Palestinians to find the path to peace.