News and Information

Huge obstacles to Mid-East peace
February 18, 2005

By Barbara Plett
BBC News, in Jerusalem

Palestinian prisoners inside an Israeli jail
Prisoner releases are among the steps being taken by Israel
Israel has begun implementing relief measures agreed at the recent Sharm al-Sheikh summit between its Prime Minister, Ariel Sharon, and Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas.

The Israelis describe them as gestures designed to strengthen Mr Abbas and his plan to stop the armed character of the Palestinian uprising.

Mr Abbas argues that negotiations and diplomacy are a more effective strategy than violence to end the occupation of Palestinian terriory Israel captured in 1967.

But there is disagreement about the scope and speed of these gestures, and whether they flesh out the historic opportunities that both leaders have lauded.

The latest step involves some 55 suspected Palestinian militants who were deported from the West Bank. Israeli media say the army will allow about a third of them to return to their homes, with more to follow.

The military has also ended its policy of demolishing houses to punish the families of Palestinians who have carried out anti-Israeli attacks. And it has suspended offensive operations such as raids and assassinations.

Now Israel is set to release 500 Palestinian prisoners and hand control of five West Bank cities back to the Palestinian Authority.

The Israelis say they are moving slowly and carefully to ensure their security, waiting for evidence that Mr Abbas is taking significant steps to end violence.

The Palestinians say their new president needs significant Israeli steps to consolidate support both for his leadership and for a truce he has negotiated with the Palestinian factions.

'Short of expectations'

When it comes to prisoners, for instance, many Palestinians say Mr Abbas needs thousands, not hundreds, released.

That includes long-term prisoners who have carried out deadly attacks and a significant number belonging to the Hamas and Islamic Jihad movements.

Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas.
Abbas is facing high expectations
The current list, they say, falls far short of expectations.

When it comes to handing back West Bank cities, Palestinian officials insist it is crucial that Israel also transfer the control of checkpoints around the cities.

Palestinians want to see their own police on the streets, yes, but much more than that, they want to be able to travel freely.

Disagreements about this have held up the handover of Jericho, the first city slated for transfer, and the most peaceful.

And when it comes to house demolitions, Palestinians point out that the number connected to gunmen and suicide bombers is relatively small.

According to the Israeli human rights group B'tselem, some 80% of the 4,100 Palestinian homes demolished during the past four years have been destroyed in Israeli operations to create buffer zones around army posts, roads and Jewish settlements in the occupied territories.

There has been no change to that policy.

Agenda clash

However incremental the steps, it is hoped that the two sides will be able to return to the situation before the outbreak of the uprising, and to consolidate a period of calm that will help Mr Sharon carry out his plan to withdraw soldiers and Jewish settlers from the Gaza Strip.

Longer term, though, the agendas clash. For instance, what about a return to the roadmap peace plan?

Ariel Sharon
Sharon has faced domestic criticism over the Gaza pull-out
The Israelis say not before they have withdrawn from Gaza. They do, however, want to co-ordinate the pullout with the Palestinian Authority.

Mr Abbas says co-ordination is not good enough, he needs political negotiations on a peace deal that leads clearly to the end of occupation.

Even if peace talks resume, the agendas still clash.

Israeli government officials are talking about reaching an interim agreement. That is an arrangement that contains the conflict, but does not resolve its root causes. Israelis say there has to be more confidence-building before they can tackle the really sensitive issues.

The Palestinians are talking about a final status agreement - a peace deal that gives them a state in the West Bank and Gaza with East Jerusalem as its capital, and resolves core issues such as the right of return for Palestinian refugees.

They fear that any interim arrangement will allow Israel time to cement its hold on parts of the West Bank, rather than enter serious negotiations about its future.

So, the relief measures are a beginning, but it is still not clear whether they will ultimately lead to peace, to containment, or to renewed violence.


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