Israeli troops eased their grip on seven of eight major Palestinian cities they controlled this week amid warnings that the longer they clamped down on the population, the greater the likelihood they would have to bear the responsibilities of an occupying power.
Israel’s security cabinet Wednesday approved work permits for another 5,000 Palestinians; 2,000 already have such permits to work in Israel, and it ordered the unfreezing of some Palestinian funds to allow the Palestinian Authority to pay for water and electricity.
The moves did not go far enough for Defense Secretary Binyamin Ben-Eliezer and Foreign Minister Shimon Peres, both of whom urged the issuing of 30,000 work permits. Peres was said to believe the limited number of work permits did not satisfy the humanitarian needs of the Palestinian people.
The move came at the request of both the Bush administration and Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Abdullah, who reportedly sent a message to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon saying the Arab world would attach great importance to an easing of restrictions on Palestinians.
Ben-Eliezer was quoted by the Israeli daily Haaretz as saying the moves were intended to break the "cycle of frustration created by terror, Israeli actions and the terrible socio-economic status in the territories which feeds the terror."
There was also concern about the added responsibilities Israel would face if it did not loosen the screws.
"If you remain there, you must care for the Palestinians," Gabriel Sheffer, a political science professor at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, warned just hours before the action. "Israel will have to make tough decisions about what to do with the local population. Pressures are mounting among Palestinians in the Gaza Strip and in the West Bank. There were protests this week in Gaza about unemployment [and hunger], and they will spread to the West Bank."
"Israel says it doesnít want to be an occupier," Sheffer added, "but the Israel Defense Forces are for maintaining control in the West Bank and that means an occupying army. So Israel will soon have both humanitarian as well as security problems" to deal with.
Hirsh Goodman, deputy director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University, echoed that concern.
"Israel must get out quickly to avoid becoming responsible for the legitimate needs of the Palestinian population, which has an unemployment rate of 50 percent, most Palestinians are living under the poverty line and there is no economic development," he observed. "It would be a catastrophe to be saddled with that now. It would be beyond the capabilities of the country, given our economic situation."
Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said this week that the troops would not be withdrawn until "quietness returns and security is established."
Dore Gold, an adviser to Sharon, said Israel is going to "experiment with ways of easing the restrictions on the Palestinian population but at the same time prevent attacks by Palestinians. I think Israel will permit and encourage regular supplies of medical goods and whatever else is necessary for hospitals."
Sheffer questioned whether the Palestinian Authority would be able to provide the social welfare network necessary for the Palestinian people because the six-week Israeli offensive known as Operation Defensive Shield, which followed the Passover massacre on March 27, virtually destroyed its infrastructure. But Gold insisted: "Israel has not dismantled the civil administration of the Palestinian Authority."
Asked about Palestinian government offices that were torn apart by Israeli troops, Gold said that was necessary because "many ministries were used as covers for passing funds to terrorists."
He added that during Operation Defensive Shield, Palestinian terrorist attacks against Israelis "dropped to zero."
But despite Operation Determined Stand, in which Israeli troops returned to Palestinian cities two weeks ago, terrorist attacks have continued, albeit fewer in number and with few injuries. The most potentially deadly was the bombing of a passenger train Sunday in Lod, just southeast of Tel Aviv. Three people were slightly injured of the 500 aboard the train. One train car was damaged. Authorities believe the bomb was planted on the tracks and detonated by remote control.
The IDF moved into the Palestinian cities two weeks ago in response to a series of Palestinian terrorist attacks that week, including the June 18 killing of 19 Israelis by a suicide bus bomber in the Gilo neighborhood of Jerusalem. Two days later, five Israelis, including a mother and three of her children, were gunned down by Palestinian terrorists who broke into the familyís home in the Israeli settlement of Itamar, just south of Nablus.
Goodman said he believes that the longer Israeli troops remain in the Palestinian cities, the louder the cry will grow from the Palestinians that Israel is an occupier. The reason, he said, is that the Palestinian Authority and Palestinian President Yasir Arafat "can’t supply the needs of the people who are hungry. They want Israel to assume responsibility."
Thus, he said, he expects more "hit and get out" actions like the one that occurred this week in the Palestinian city of Kalkilya. Several hours after pulling out, troops moved back in and reimposed a curfew. They reportedly acted based upon intelligence reports.
But Housing and Construction Minister Natan Sharansky said he believed the troops must remain in the Palestinian cities "to control security because there is no partner who is interested in taking care of the Palestinian citizens."
Rather than Israel care for the population, Sharansky said the United States and Arab states that recognize Israel should create a Palestinian Administrative Authority. Israel would have the right to veto any appointees who have connections to terrorist activities. He said the PAA would be responsible for running the day-to-day lives of Palestinians in such matters as the economy, police, education, housing, religion, and culture.
Sharansky proposed that the PAA operate for at least a three-year transition period during which required democratic structures would be created to pave the way for final status negotiations. At the end of the three years, free and open elections would be held.
He stressed that the PAA would operate with the presence of Israeli troops in Palestinian cities, something Sharansky said previously worked successfully in Japan and Germany.
"The moment there is a real responsible authority, we will be able to leave," he added.
Arafat this week fired Jibril Rajoub, the head of Palestinian security in the West Bank, and made other security personnel changes in the name of reform that also demonstrated his tight-fisted control over the Palestinian Authority. Rajoub and Arafat reportedly had a falling out and after Rajoub ordered his men to surrender during an IDF assault that destroyed his headquarters, he lost face among many Palestinians.
But Sharansky said such moves by Arafat and his Palestinian Authority are meaningless because "nothing good can come out of this corrupt group."
The Bush administration said this week that not only did it want Arafat replaced, but it would cut off all funding to the Palestinian Authority if he was re-elected in January.
In another development, Ben-Eliezer, head of the Labor Party, beat back attempts by two rivals to wrest away control at the partyís seventh convention. And he thwarted an effort to get the Labor Party to withdraw from the unity government.