Eli Sinai, Gaza Strip — As Israel’s army began pulling out of Palestinian cities this week and terrorist groups pledged a three-month cease-fire, Israelis in this northern Gaza Strip settlement could find little evidence that the daily fighting going on just outside their window was really over.
“It still hasn’t proven itself yet,” Sarah Kahani, a nursery school teacher, told The Jewish Week. “I want to hope but I’m not 100 percent.”
Living just a few miles away from Gaza hotbeds like Beit Hanoun, Kahani, 42, can hear the booms of Palestinian rockets fired into Israel and the Israeli Air Force missiles targeting wanted terrorists.
But even as the newly declared cease-fire proved porous — a Bulgarian worker was killed Monday in the West Bank by Palestinian terrorists — Kahani said Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s government should think twice before retaliating.
“I think that if there are attacks, even if they’re really terrible, at some stage we have to show restraint because it could come back as a boomerang,” she said.
After 1,000 days of carnage — more than 800 Israelis have been killed in 33 months of terror — few Israelis were ready to believe that Palestinian terrorists were genuinely committed to upholding the halt in attacks and that Palestinian police would do much to disarm terror groups.
But the withdrawal of the Israeli army from northern Gaza this week and the planned pullback in Bethlehem, which was set for Wednesday, were the first signs that the road map was gaining traction, and that helped keep alive the embers of faint optimism.
“There’s more support than meets the eye,” said Hanoch Smith, a leading Israeli pollster. “The percentage of the people that believe there’s going to be an agreement coming out of this is over one-third, which is high given the widespread skepticism.
“A solid element in the population believes that something is going to come of this,” Smith added.
Indeed, for the first time since President George W. Bush convened Israelis and Palestinians together at the Aqaba summit in early June to launch the road map, it seemed that the momentum of the peace initiative was beginning to outweigh the daily violence.
An agreement to restore Palestinian authority in Gaza was reached Saturday after weeks of stymied negotiations. The visit over the weekend of National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice provided the extra push for generals on both sides to cut out mutual insults and iron out differences on the withdrawal.
And almost simultaneously, Palestinian militant factions concluded weeks of talks on an unprecedented agreement to halt attacks on all Israelis — whether soldiers or civilians, inside the Green Line or in the territories.
On Tuesday, Sharon and Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas provided a visible symbol of that incremental movement toward peace in a joint appearance before meetings in Sharon’s office.
“I have no doubt that the picture coming out of here today to the people of Israel and the Palestinian people and the entire world is one of hope and of optimism,” Sharon said at a photo op that also included members of the Israeli and Palestinian cabinets. “We stand before a new opportunity for the possibility of a better future for both peoples. A future full of opportunities and hope is today closer than in the past.”
It was the third meeting of the two leaders since Abbas took office in late April.
In Washington, Bush praised the new diplomatic activity, which came after strong U.S. pressure on both sides.
Press Secretary Ari Fleischer said Bush “is encouraged by the work that the Israelis are doing together with the Palestinian Authority leaders to promote the vision of peace, to make progress toward peace.”
But the Sharon-Abbas meeting also provided a preview of new conflicts awaiting them on the Mideast road map. Abbas told reporters that he would insist Israel begin dismantling Jewish settlements. The cease-fire agreement also requires Israel to leave all Palestinian cities, release Palestinian prisoners and stop the targeted killing of terror leaders.
Many Israeli officials remain skeptical about the long-term prospects of the current cease-fire. They worry that it is merely a tactical move intended to give the terrorists a break to replenish their battered ranks.
“Arrangements with terrorist organizations are not worth the paper they’re written on,” said Raanan Gissin, a spokesman for Sharon. “Any type of temporary arrangement is not going to be accepted by us.”
The timing of the two agreements was by no means coincidental. Even though Israel wanted no part of the cease-fire agreement, called a “hudna” by Palestinians, there was a clear link between the two sets of talks.
The pullback agreement between Israel and the Palestinian Authority provided several concessions demanded in the joint hudna from Hamas, Islamic Jihad and Fatah.
“Both sides are negotiating with the Americans more than they’re negotiating with each other,” said Hillel Frisch, a political science professor at Bar Ilan University. “None of this would have come to fruition had it not been for American pressure. It was neither stalemate nor victory for either side.”
Still, the pullback and the cease-fire arrangements seem as fragile as ever. The demand of the Palestinian terrorists to release all prisoners and for an immediate pullback gives them a convenient excuse if they should decide to end the cease-fire in the short term.
Islamic Jihad leader Muhammed Al-Hindi told The Jewish Week he seriously doubted that the cease-fire would hold, explaining that he was counting on blaming Israel for not meeting the conditions. The third largest Palestinian militant group signed on to the agreement as a tactical maneuver aimed at helping the Palestinians sway the court of international sentiment back to their side, he suggested.
“We want the world to understand our problem in the right way. Israel is misleading the whole world and trying to make us part of the war against terrorism,” said Al-Hindi. “We are sure that Israel will break this hudna, and then the whole world will have to start supporting the Palestinian people.”
But the first breach of the cease-fire came from Fatah’s Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade less than 24 hours after the agreement was announced. On Monday, a Bulgarian construction worker was shot to death by gunmen on a road near the West Bank city of Jenin.
Within hours of the shooting, the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade announced its support for the cease-fire and Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat said he had jailed the perpetrators, though Palestinian Authority police did not confirm the arrest.
The attacks underscored how difficult it will be to enforce the cease-fire when regional officers in the West Bank and Gaza, who are isolated from one another by Israeli military closure, are skeptical of the cease-fire agreement and even challenge its legitimacy.
Just two days before the agreement was finalized, a group of Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade commanders in the West Bank city of Nablus agreed that neither Arafat, Abbas nor jailed Fatah leader Marwan Barghouti could convince them to honor the cease-fire.
“As long as there are soldiers in front of my house and shooting at me, I cannot stop resisting them,” said a 31-year-old who used the pseudonym “Abu Khaled” for fear of the Israeli army, which combs through Nablus every night for terrorists like him. The cease-fire is “a waste of time.”
‘Bluff Of The Century’
The mirror image of that sentiment was voiced by Eli Sinai spokesman Avi Farkhan, who called the cease-fire “the bluff of the century.”
Standing at the edge of the settlement next to a memorial to two residents who were killed in a Palestinian infiltration two years ago, Farkhan points to a Palestinian farm less than a mile away that has been used as cover for attacks on Eli Sinai.
After the Israeli pullback, Palestinian terrorists will have more freedom to roam to plan attacks on the settlement, he said.
Farkhan, who claimed to be the first Israeli to settle in northern Gaza, blamed the United States for pressuring Israel into a de facto acceptance of the Palestinian cease-fire.
“When they force us to accept the hudna, it’s like saying accept a hudna with bin Laden,” he told The Jewish Week.
Eli Sinai is one of three Israeli settlements that sit just over the Green Line on territory declared a demilitarized zone and occupied by UN forces before 1967.
Most of the residents here did not come out of ideology but rather to improve their quality of life, said Kahani, the school teacher. Houses are much more affordable than in the center of the country, and there is easy access to the beach. If Israel were ever to dismantle settlements in Gaza, many residents would be willing to leave, she said.
But that day is still far off. And now that Israel’s army has pulled out of northern Gaza, several of the settlements’ 80 families have requested the army send an officer to explain how the new deployment will affect security.
However, Kahani said that even with the army in northern Gaza, the far-off sound of explosions had become as routine as the wailing calls coming from the mosques of Gaza.
“The quality of life here is like a bird in a cage,” she said. “I have my privately owned land, and I can go wherever I want, but on the other hand there is the security tensions all the time.
“I want to hope in peace. I don’t believe it will happen,” she said, “but I always leave hope.”
Washington correspondent James D. Besser contributed to this report.