Cease-Fire Hangs by Thread

The flimsiest of cease-fires continued in name only last week, as Israelis absorbed two brutal terror attacks and struck back at the Palestinians Authority.

Even when Foreign Minister Shimon Peres and Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat met last week at the Gaza airport to discuss a series of steps aimed at bolstering the truce, heavy exchanges of gunfire could be heard nearby.

And even after the two announced the steps each side would take following their Sept. 26 meeting, the situation escalated.

Within days, the Palestinians took to the streets to mark the first anniversary of their ongoing uprising.

On Sunday, Israeli troops clashed with Palestinian gunmen and rock-throwers in the West Bank and Gaza Strip for a fourth day in a row. During the day’s clashes, at least two Palestinians were killed, bringing the total to at least 17 Palestinians who have been killed since the two sides agreed last week to bolster the cease-fire.

Israeli officials, who say the Palestinian victims were involved in attacks on Israel’s soldiers, are now questioning whether Arafat was genuine about a cease-fire.

"The conflict is not with Arafat personally," said Arafat’s negotiating partner, Peres. "It is a conflict between two peoples."

Roni Shaked, the Palestinian affairs analyst for the Israeli daily Yediot Achronot, agrees. "The Palestinian street wants riots," he said. "There is a gap between what Arafat wants at this stage and what the Palestinian public wants."

According to Shaked, Arafat is trying to maneuver between the demands of Palestinian radicals and U.S. pressure for a halt to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Washington views such a halt as necessary if it is to line up Arab support for the international anti-terror coalition it wants to create following the Sept. 11 terror attacks in the United States.

But the likelihood of the halt holding looked even slimmer by Tuesday, when at least two terrorists infiltrated Elei Sinai in the northwest Gaza Strip, murdering Liron Harpaz, 18, of Elei Sinai, and her boyfriend Assaf Yitzhaki, 20, of Lod, and wounding 14 others, including seven soldiers.

Seven Palestinians — four of them PA security service officers — were subsequently killed in an IDF retaliatory operation, according to reports.

The terrorists breached Elei Sinai’s perimeter fence, then threw grenades inside homes and fired automatic weapons before fleeing toward the periphery of the community.

On Wednesday, Palestinian gunmen shot and injured two Jewish women, one seriously, in Hebron outside the Cave of the Patriarchs.

The Palestinian Authority issued a statement condemning the attacks, saying they violated PA Chairman Yasser Arafat’s cease-fire orders.

But even if Arafat genuinely wants to enforce the cease-fire, it is now much more difficult for him to do so than it was prior to the outbreak of the intifada, because power is now divided between him and the Palestinian militias.

Moreover, a whopping 85 percent of Palestinians want the uprising to continue.

Despite such sobering statistics, Peres is asking for patience. Since his meeting last week with Arafat, "There are no more suicide bombers, and there is a considerable drop in violence," Peres said.

He also drew a line between those in the Islamic fundamentalist Hamas and Islamic Jihad movements who "want to annihilate Israel" and "the Palestinians who want dialogue."

According to Peres, Arafat belongs to the second group.

Peres may be correct about Arafat, but with officials from Hamas, Islamic Jihad and the Palestinian militias vowing to continue fighting Israel, it may not make much difference.

This became clear Monday, when a car bomb exploded in the Talpiot neighborhood of Jerusalem.

No one was injured in the attack — for which Islamic Jihad claimed responsibility — but had there been fatalities, the bombing could have put a quick end to the cease-fire.

The difficulty of enforcing the truce was made clear in the Rafah region in southern Gaza, the site of continued clashes between Israeli troops and Palestinian gunmen.

In recent days, Arafat dispatched a force of several hundred Palestinian policemen to the area to try to restore peace.

But, he told Peres in a late-night telephone conversation, the police were encountering fire from Palestinians militias that were refusing to lay down their arms.

Hours before the Peres-Arafat meeting last week, Palestinian militants detonated a large bomb beneath an Israeli base near the Rafah crossing that separates Gaza and Egypt.

For weeks before the attack, Palestinians had dug a tunnel from the town of Rafah to a point underneath the base.

As it was, only three Israeli soldiers were lightly injured when a wall collapsed on them. The attack could have ended with scores of Israeli soldiers dead — and the end of the cease-fire even before it began.

In a mirror version of the debate among Israelis regarding Arafat’s intentions, Palestinian officials are charging that Israeli leaders, including Sharon, want to jeopardize the cease-fire agreement.

On Sunday, Israel’s Inner Cabinet decided to give Arafat at least another 48 hours to live up to the truce. The ministers also decided Sunday to lift a blockade of the West Bank city of Jericho and open the border crossing at Rafah.

Top Israeli officials remain deeply skeptical, however.

When asked if the second stage of the cease-fire plan would kick in, a spokesman for Sharon replied, "What cease-fire?”