Gaza/Bethlehem First — and Last?

Reports of the death of a gradual Israeli-Palestinian cease-fire plan may be premature.

A lot of evidence surfaced this week that the initial skepticism that greeted the "Gaza/Bethlehem First" plan was justified. But there were also facts to buttress the optimistic view that the plan might reduce nearly two years of violence.

The strongest evidence that the plan would not hold came Wednesday, when Israeli forces staged a raid to thwart a suspected arms smuggling operation, blowing up at least one container off the Gaza coast. The raid, in which Israel took control of a large stretch of beach, came after Palestinian mortar fire reportedly blew the roof off a nursery school in the Gaza Strip settlement of Gush Katif late Tuesday night.

Citing both the suspected shipment and the school attack, Israeli Defense Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer canceled a security meeting with the Palestinian Authority’s interior minister, Abdel Razek Yehiyeh.

Earlier in the week, Ben-Eliezer insisted that the plan was not being put into deep freeze, despite a decision to hold off a possible Israeli army withdrawal from Hebron at least until after the High Holidays, which begin in early September. Meetings on ways to progress with the cease-fire plan will still be held this week, the Defense Minister’s office said Sunday.

But in adopting the army’s recommendation not to pull troops from Hebron for the time being, Ben-Eliezer cited security warnings and concern that terrorist groups there might exploit the holiday period to launch attacks. Comments from the Israel Defense Force chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Moshe Ya’alon, publicly confirmed the army’s point of view — and the unlikelihood of the cease-fire plan actually working.

Addressing a conference of rabbis on Sunday, Ya’alon said a unilateral Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank and Gaza Strip would be seen as submission to terrorism. He added that the Palestinian Authority’s adoption of terrorism as a tactic reflected its refusal to accept Israel’s existence. Israel must decisively defeat the intifada so the Palestinians don’t conclude that terrorism pays, Ya’alon said.

Ben-Eliezer also noted that Israeli troops could withdraw only if it was clear that the Palestinian security forces taking responsibility for maintaining order were capable of doing so. Israeli security officials gave a negative review of Palestinian efforts to halt terror attacks in the Gaza Strip in the week since the accord was signed, the Israeli daily Ha’aretz reported.

Israel has been waiting for evidence that the Palestinians are serious about stopping terrorism in Gaza, where the Palestinian Authority security apparatus is largely intact. Israeli military officials said P.A. security organs have yet to take serious steps to crack down on Palestinian terrorist groups, Ha’aretz reported.

For his part, Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said the Israelis are stalling. "What I can describe the situation to be is nonmovement, as if the consistent position of the Israeli government is to keep the status quo," Erekat was quoted as saying.

But not all the news is negative.

Israel agreed to begin lifting restrictions on Palestinians in the Gaza Strip due to a drop in violence. The move was agreed upon in a security meeting Monday night between Israeli and Palestinian security officials, Ha’aretz reported.

The Israeli army also announced it began easing restrictions on Palestinians in the West Bank city of Bethlehem starting Wednesday. The measures include letting Palestinian workers into Israel, lifting travel restrictions on teachers and permitting clergy to travel between Jerusalem and Bethlehem, the paper said.

In Bethlehem, Palestinian security forces have displayed good intentions, according to Ha’aretz. But the Palestinian security apparatus in the West Bank faces a formidable task of rebuilding physical structures, personnel and morale.

Palestinians say it will take them time to rebuild their security forces before they can take effective measures on the ground. Israeli skeptics say that is the Palestinians’ way of signaling that they will continue to allow terror attacks, while disclaiming responsibility.

In the meantime, the Palestinian Authority’s interior minister, Gen. Abdel Razek Yehiyeh, called on Palestinian militias to rethink their strategy of armed struggle. He urged them to abide by P.A. decisions and the rule of law, and called on Palestinian factions to renew a dialogue toward formulating a united strategy.

But the militant groups, ranging from the fundamentalist Hamas and Islamic Jihad to the Al Aksa Brigades of P.A. President Yasser Arafat’s Fatah movement, rejected any cease-fire and urged continued warfare against Israel.

Earlier, the "Intifada leadership council" issued a statement in the West Bank calling on the Palestinian Authority to cease security contacts with Israel, including the cease-fire plan.

Marwan Barghouti, head of Fatah in the West Bank, told a Kuwaiti newspaper that he opposes agreements with Israel unless it ends its "occupation, recognizes an independent Palestinian state with Jerusalem as its capital" and accepted the "Right of Return" for millions of Palestinian refugees and their descendants.

Currently in an Israeli jail, Barghouti is slated to go on trial next month for allegedly masterminding terrorist attacks that killed scores of Israelis.

Violence — and Israel’s anti-terror operations — continued this week, albeit at a slightly slower pace.

Four armed Palestinians were killed in weekend clashes with Israeli troops. Two died while attempting to infiltrate an Israeli settlement in the Gaza strip last Friday night, while the other two died in a firefight with Israelis soldiers patrolling in the West Bank city of Jenin on Saturday.

On Sunday, Israeli troops nabbed a suspected suicide bomber and two alleged accomplices near Jenin.

Israeli troops continued arrest operations throughout the West Bank. Among those detained was another Palestinian allegedly connected to the Jerusalem-based Hamas cell captured a week ago that is blamed for at least eight terrorist attacks, including the July 31 Hebrew University bombing.

On Monday, Israel arrested local Hamas leader Jamal Abu Haji during a raid in the Jenin refugee camp. In Tulkarm, troops demolished the home of a Palestinian suspected of involvement in terrorist attacks that killed eight people.

Seven Israeli Arabs have been arrested on charges that they assisted in an Aug. 4 suicide bombing that killed nine people and wounded 50. According to information released for publication Monday, seven members of a Galilee clan were arrested several weeks ago and have confessed to allegations regarding the attack in northern Israel.

Two of the principal suspects, Ibrahim and Yassin Bakri, allegedly helped the Palestinian bomber choose a bus to bomb and drove him to the stop where he boarded. Other family members allegedly gave the bomber shelter.

Israeli army plans to demolish the East Jerusalem homes of two suicide bombers were delayed Sunday when the terrorists’ families appealed to the military prosecutor in the West Bank.

In the Dec. 1 attack, the two bombers blew themselves up among Saturday night revelers on Jerusalem’s Ben Yehuda pedestrian mall, killing 11 people and wounding more than 180.

Whether the "Gaza/Bethlehem First" plan has any chance of preventing such attacks in the future remains anybody’s guess.

High Morale

As Israeli-Palestinian violence hits the six-month mark, Israeli military officials report that soldiers remain motivated to serve in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Senior military officials report that reservists, who account for 70 percent of the army’s 639,150 troops, are reporting for duty at higher rates than before the intifada began. This contrasts with past years, when reservists often found excuses to evade service.

According to Brig. Gen. Avinoam Laufer, head of the Israel Defense Force’s (IDF) planning and logistics division, about 95 percent of reservists who have recently been drafted have reported for duty.

This compares to about 85 percent who reported for duty before Palestinian violence began last September.

“The feeling among reservists, like in the public at large, is that something must be done,” Laufer said, adding that in recent years soldiers’ motivation has tended to rise when times got tougher.

The army does not yet have clear indications about how the intifada is affecting new recruits or conscripted soldiers.

Soldiers currently being drafted were polled about their attitudes last year, before the wave of violence began.

Those polls indicated that there had then been a 4 percent decline in the motivation of young Israelis to serve in combat units.

That decline came against the backdrop of political developments in which Israel appeared to be on the brink of peace deals, Laufer said.

“When there is a feeling that we are moving toward a good peace, motivation tends to decline,” he said. “When the situation deteriorates, motivation goes up.”

Nevertheless, Laufer admits that during the first intifada, between 1987 and 1993, there was a clear deterioration in the motivation of reservists to serve as the conflict dragged on and soldiers were called repeatedly to police the Palestinians.

The apparent increase in motivation, as measured in terms of reserve turnout, comes amid a rising death toll.

Since the violence began in late September, 67 Israelis — 38 civilians and 29 soldiers — have been killed by the Palestinians.

Israel has killed at least 348 Palestinians over the same period.

For Israel, the death toll is very high when compared with the number killed by Hezbollah gunmen during the last five years of the Israeli presence in southern Lebanon.

Between 1995 and 1999, about 25 Israeli soldiers were killed in Lebanon. Even that death toll was enough to break the Israeli consensus over maintaining a presence there.

Palestinians were jubilant when Israel withdrew from Lebanon last year, citing Hezbollah’s war as a model the Palestinians themselves should follow.

Israeli military officials, however, said the Palestinians were making a “crude miscalculation” if they hope to copy Hezbollah tactics and wear down Israeli society and military morale through a war of attrition.

If the Palestinians concluded from the Lebanon case “that with a big enough pile of bodies we will go home or go somewhere else,” they misunderstood Israeli policy, said one military official, speaking on condition of anonymity.

“If that’s the logic, if they think they will pile up the numbers and get a Lebanon outcome, it’s a historic confusion of the accidental and the existential,” the official said.

Military assessments of Israel’s staying power come amid reports that the Palestinians may be reassessing their strategy.

Some Palestinians are said to be calling for public protests with a lower level of violence, alongside the guerrilla-style warfare by armed militias that has been the staple in recent months — and that has cost the Palestinians a degree of international sympathy.

As recently as Sunday, however, another Israeli was wounded in a drive-by shooting in the West Bank.

While the continued violence appears to have rallied Israeli soldiers and society behind the national unity government’s refusal to negotiate under fire, there are some signs of cracks in the consensus.

Yesh Gvul, the movement that supports soldiers who refuse to serve in the West Bank or Gaza Strip, says it has handled 10 cases of conscripted soldiers and fielded calls from up to 80 reservists who refuse to help suppress the current intifada, including a “high proportion” of junior officers.

Yesh Gvul — Hebrew for “there’s a limit” — was created to protest Israel’s presence in Lebanon.

The group says 168 reservists went to prison during the 1982 Lebanon War for refusing to serve, while another 200 went to prison during the 1987-1993 Palestinian intifada.

Even the relatively small numbers are significant, however, since in the past, young conscripted soldiers almost never dared to challenge military discipline by refusing to serve, according to Peretz Kidron, a Yesh Gvul activist.

Kidron also said that most reservists who refuse to serve in the territories have been given other assignments instead of jail time, as the army wants to avoid public controversies that might affect morale.

“Outright refusal is the tip of the iceberg, and that has an enormous impact on army morale far beyond the numbers involved,” Kidron said. “They know that every time they throw one guy in jail, another 10 get the idea.”

Kidron also said Yesh Gvul has found in the past that many reservists will heed the call of duty the first time around but will think twice if called up again.

Tamar Hermann, director of the Tami Steinmitz Center for Peace Research at Tel Aviv University, said Israelis from across the political spectrum are rallying around the flag.

“Even those Israelis who supported unilateral withdrawal from Lebanon are now much more skeptical of such a move so close to home in the West Bank,” she said.

But Hermann’s polls also show that while Israelis have a high level of confidence in the IDF, 50 percent of the respondents do not believe there is a military solution to the current conflict, compared with only 41 percent who think more force would help.

“Israelis think some force should be used to suppress rising Palestinian violence, but they do not see it as a way out of the conflict,” she said.