As Israelis honored their war dead Tuesday and celebrated their independence the next day, the bitter divisions that have pitted Israelis against Arabs, and Israelis against each other, continued to surface.
At least five Palestinians were wounded in clashes with Israeli troops in the West Bank town of Bethlehem on Wednesday. The violence erupted following a demonstration in support of 1,600 Palestinians held in Israeli jails. The demonstration was part of a week-long series of events designed to convince Israeli and Palestinian negotiators to put the plight of the prisoners high on their agenda and to improve prison conditions.
At the same time, near the southern Lebanese port city of Tyre, Israeli warplanes pounded suspected Hezbollah positions for the fourth day of air strikes. The strikes came in response to Hezbollah terrorist attacks inside Israel’s self-described security zone in southern Lebanon. Last week, the two sides exchanged the heaviest cross-border fire in almost a year as both sides fired missiles beyond the security zone. One Israeli soldier was killed.
The fighting in Lebanon comes as the Israeli military is making plans to withdraw from the security zone before the June 8 deadline. Israel, which has maintained that zone for 22 years to protect its northern border from terrorist attacks, wants the United Nations to police the area after it withdraws.
UN special Middle East envoy Terje Larsen toured the region this week and said the UN would not consider the Israeli withdrawal complete unless its South Lebanese Army partners also leave.
The SLA commander, Gen. Antoine Lahad, said his men would withdraw if they and their families were granted amnesty by Lebanon. Although Lebanese Prime Minister Selim Hoss rejected the request, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak said he believed a solution could be found that would allow them to withdraw. He repeated that Israel had a moral obligation to the SLA, some of whose members have reportedly already settled in Israel. There are reports that many of the 2,500 SLA members and their families are seeking asylum in Israel, but Barak made no commitments.
Israel and Hezbollah reportedly held secret talks last month designed to guarantee a peaceful Israeli withdrawal from south Lebanon in exchange for the release of 20 prisoners. But, according to a European radio station, Syria forced Hezbollah to break off the discussions.
Meanwhile, Syrian President Hafez Assad flew to Cairo this week to meet with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak about his country’s desire for peace with Israel. Syrian Foreign Minister Farouk Sharaa said later: “If Israel is serious, we are serious. In fact, we are serious in any case.”
He gave no indication when peace talks, which the Syrians broke off in January, might resume.
Although there appeared to be little progress this week in the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, the French newspaper Le Monde created a stir when it published a report saying the two sides were closer to agreement than was publicly known. Its story, which both sides immediately denied, claimed that Israel was prepared to turn over between 80 and 90 percent of the West Bank to the Palestinians. It said some Jewish settlements would be evacuated, while others would fall under Palestinian sovereignty. Israelis would be allowed to remain there on land leased to the Jewish state.
The report said also that the Palestinians would get administrative authority over parts of East Jerusalem and an access corridor to their holy sites.
Barak called the report “creative and interesting.”
“We can examine some of the suggestions,” he told Israel Radio, adding that the talks have not reached such an advanced stage.
A spokesman for the Council of Jewish Communities in Judea, Samaria & Gaza, Yehudit Tayar, said the report addressed only items Israel would be giving up.
“I didn’t hear anything about what Israel would get out of this deal,” she said, “like security arrangements, the end of threats of violence and the destruction of the terrorist infrastructure.”
She added that the idea of Israel leasing land from the Palestinians “is ludicrous because any Arab who gives or sells land to a Jew is subject to the death penalty.”
Meanwhile, on Tuesday, as Israelis prepared to honor the 19,100 Israelis killed in Israel’s wars, fervently Orthodox Jews in Mea Shearim posted signs telling residents to ignore the observance because it is not a Jewish tradition. And when the siren sounded to mark the two minutes of silence, men in traditional, long, black coats were seen crossing main intersections where traffic had stopped, greeting each other with smiles and handshakes. And women wearing headscarves chatted and laughed loudly.
And some Israeli Arabs labeled Israel’s Independence Day a day of mourning.