Border Control / Olmert's man in Ramallah
Prime Minster Ehud Olmert wouldn't have had to ask twice: The barest of winks, and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) would have sent every journalist in Israel a petition calling to keep the prime minister where he is. For good reason. People in Ramallah read the public opinion polls published in those papers, too.
They read that MK Benjamin Netanyahu (Likud) said at the Herzliya Conference that the economy must be rehabilitated before talk on peace may begin, and they didn't know whether to laugh or to cry. Let Netanyahu show them exactly where an economy has flourished under a foreign army's spears. Nor is Abbas pinning any hopes on Defense Minister Ehud Barak, the inventor of "there's no partner."
Instead of petitioning the Israeli public, Abbas invited several Kadima politicians for a visit, including Deputy Foreign Minister Majali Wahabi, MKs Michael Nudelman and Ronit Tirosh and Rishon Lezion Mayor Meir Nitzan, who is also head of the Kadima council. They met an exhausted, even somewhat extinguished politician who has lost half his kingdom and is clinging to the other half. Before answering any question about the diplomatic negotiations, Abbas squinted at Ahmed Qurei (Abu Ala), who heads the negotiating teams along with Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni. His eyes sought out Qurei after every answer, as though expecting confirmation. One of the guests discerned a trace of scorn on Qurei's lips.
Abbas said he believes the prime minister truly aspires to reach a permanent status agreement and that if this does not happen, someone else will be sitting in the Muqata at the end of this year - maybe someone from the Hamas command, maybe someone from the Central Command. The delegation left Ramallah with the feeling that Abbas indeed sees Olmert as a serious partner and fears for the fate of his government, but some returned home with doubts concerning the Palestinian president.
"It isn't that he doesn't have a real desire to reach a compromise," said one participant. "The big question is whether he can sell the agreement to his people."
Infrastructures Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer (Fouad) expressed his opinion of Abbas months ago. Ben-Eliezer is convinced that Olmert is gambling on the wrong Palestinian. He also doesn't believe that Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad (Ben-Eliezer calls him the Palestinian Stanley Fischer) can stop Hamas. The strong man in Barak's circle is promising that once the Winograd storm dies down, he will renew his campaign to free Marwan Barghouti from prison.
Ben-Eliezer told Olmert not to make excuses - he believes Barghouti is the only one who has a chance of getting the Hamas genie back into the bottle and restoring Gaza to the PA. Olmert responded, "This isn't the time." That, more or less, was his response to Fayyad's plan to put control of the crossing points between Gaza and Israel into PA hands, an initiative that has gathered momentum since the breakthrough at the Rafah crossing.
Olmert is promising his new friends on the left that once he gets rid of the Winograd roadblock he will deal with the barriers Barak is placing in front of the diplomatic process. That is - he will use his authority as prime minister to keep the innumerable promises to Abbas to dismantle dozens of roadblocks and the repeated commitments to U.S. President George W. Bush to evacuate dozens of outposts.
Meanwhile, Vice Premier Haim Ramon intends to pressure the post-Winograd Olmert to advance the voluntary evacuation-compensation law for West Bank settlers as well. Ramon, hitching a ride on the plan proposed by Meretz MK Avshalom ("Abu") Vilan and Labor MK Colette Avital, has promised to participate in a meeting of political activists on the initiative that will show everyone that Olmert isn't just talking about two states. The Avigdor Lieberman (MK Yisrael Beiteinu) excuse already has joined the opposition.
The IDF's nightmare
The breach of the walls along the Gaza-Egypt border and the incidents at the border crossings around Jerusalem made the Israel Defense Forces and the Shin Bet security service think about their nightmare: tens of thousands of Palestinians, with or without Israeli peace activists, embarking on a quiet march toward the capital. In February 2002, Haaretz reported that when Tanzim activist Raad al-Karmi was executed - putting an end to one of the longest cease-fires since the start of the intifada - Yasser Arafat was closer than ever to deciding to forgo the armed intifada in favor of non-violent civil revolt.
According to information obtained by Israel security sources, Arafat was talking about a march on Jerusalem. The IDF contemplated a scenario of thousands of unarmed Palestinian civilians marching from Ramallah, Jericho and Bethlehem toward the barriers that surround Jerusalem, waving peace placards at television cameras from around the world. They wondered what an officer should do when his soldiers are stuck amid hundreds of Palestinian women and children carrying posters and making their way toward a Jewish settlement. And what should they do when processions set out from all West Bank towns, toward the Jewish settlements that surround them? In the summer of 2003, the IDF had the opportunity to see one of those scenarios on the ground. Najib Abu Rokayah and Eyal Raz of B'Tselem, the Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories, happened to be at the site and captured the incident on video.
"It happened in the morning near the Hawara roadblock," recalls Abu Rokayah. "A huge knot of nearly 2,000 people waited for hours for the barrier to open. A ring of soldiers surrounded them and didn't let them move back. One of the people, a Hebrew-speaker of about 45, went up to the soldiers and tried to find out when they would open the barrier. After he didn't get an answer, he said to them, 'I'm going home. If you want to, shoot me.' The man moved toward the barrier and the mass started to follow him. The soldiers fired into the air and the people, including women and children, kept walking. The soldiers moved aside and all of them came in."
A few months later, Abu Rokayah witnessed a similar event on the road to Nablus, when dozens of students who wanted to return home were not deterred by a group of armed soldiers blocking their way.
In internal IDF discussions, it emerged that tanks and helicopters become empty vessels in the face of demonstrators armed with peace posters. It also emerged that if the West Bank doesn't also fall to Hamas, and the PA decides to return authority to Israel, the Civil Administration is unprepared to run the hospitals, schools and the rest of the civil system there.
Who didn't say Sderot
When a top United Nations official dares to say a bad word about his country, Israeli Ambassador Danny Gillerman acts like a lioness defending cubs. Last Friday he snarled at British diplomat John Holmes, Undersecretary for Humanitarian Affairs, who condemned Israel after the siege on the Gaza Strip was tightened.
Gillerman told Israel Radio that he hadn't heard Holmes "describe the 4,100 rockets that have been launched at Israeli cities, aimed at killing Israeli babies, children and innocents, as a humanitarian crisis."
Upon the ambassador's words, the Humanitarian Affairs coordination office in Jerusalem sprang into action. The staff there distributed Holmes' January 18 statement and noted that this was "the only recent statement by Mr. Holmes" on the matter.
The Qassams and the harm to civilians on both sides are mentioned nine times. In its first sentence, it says the decision to close the crossings is a "response to intensified cross-border rocket fire by Palestinian militants." Midway, it mentions 150 Qassams that were fired at Israel during the previous three days, as compared to 150 in all of December. In the final paragraph it states that Holmes' office is focusing, among other things, "on the immediate situation and on the link between the rocket attacks and Israel's actions."
The Israeli diplomats are now hoping that the breaching of the Philadelphi Route fence will change the equation for the poor children of Sderot and Gaza, and deflect the arrows of international criticism southward, toward Egypt.
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