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If it were only Tara, Georgia, or Palestine, Texas, Scarlett or Bonnie would be waiting at the entrance to the devastated estate or in front of the small house at the end of the row of sycamore trees, with a silent child - the very likeness of his father - by their side and a golden-haired infant in their arms, until receiving the wonderful news: Hurrah, hurrah! Johnny, battle-wounded and sick from his time in captivity, came home again. No more wars, a civilian for eternity, who will be released on bail if suspected of committing a crime and arrested, while the right of the people to bear arms, as enshrined in the Bill of Rights that was added to the Constitution, would protect the pistols and hunting rifles in his possession.

This, though, is not America. This is Khan Yunis, Balata and Hebron, and when Jihad returns home from Ketziot prison, he will not beat his sword into a plowshare but forge a Qassam rocket out of a metal pipe; and when Jalal is released from administrative detention in Ofer Camp, he will strap on an explosive belt and make a farewell appearance in front of a video camera in order to record his last will and testament in the service of the struggle.

This is not a return home of prisoners of war, who are banned by custom enshrined in treaties from taking up arms again against the adversary who released them from captivity. If Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) and his security chief, Mohammed Dahlan, continue to evade a frontal clash with Hamas, the cease-fire will collapse, either when Hamas, or someone in Tehran, picks a convenient date after the three-month period expires, or when Israel decides that it will not wait for that to happen - the way it looks now, if the Palestinian failure continues - until the end of July.

That was the appraisal this week - even before the crisis of support for Abu Mazen - of defense and security personnel with access to the most highly classified material, people familiar with the mood on the Palestinian street and knowledgeable about Oslo and everything that has happened since. The optimists among them foresaw a bitter and perhaps swift end for the cease-fire, in the form of the Gaza Strip version of last year's Operation Defensive Shield. And those were the optimists, because the pessimists maintained that the resurgence of Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad and the extreme wings of the Tanzim militia, in the cities from which the Israel Defense Forces will withdraw, will bring about a second Operation Defensive Shield in the West Bank, too.

The immediate trend of a decline in the number of warnings about terrorist attacks today-tomorrow-this week, meets, on its way down the graph, the rising line of warnings about a build-up of weapons and strength in preparation for the next stage. The level of current warnings - about a certain individual who received explosives, intelligence and instructions from a certain dispatcher in a certain city and is about to set out to perpetrate a suicide bombing in an Israeli city (not necessarily a specific one, but possibly the central part of the country, particularly metropolitan Tel Aviv, as the separation fence is taking shape north of there) - declined in number from 56 to 43 to 37 to 28 by the middle of this week. It's down a step, into the elevator and up to a higher floor, where the next planned event has not been canceled, only suspended.

Split every which way

The only action that will prevent a disaster, the security personnel warned, will be a clear decision over Hamas by Abu Mazen and Dahlan. Any such outcome seemed more remote than ever this week. Abu Mazen prefers to sidestep the problem instead of attacking it, while Dahlan told the Americans that he arrested, interrogated and will bring to trial planners of terrorist attacks, though in practice he detained them for a dressing-down and pleaded with them and sent them on their way.

Dahlan's Israeli acquaintances were amazed at Dahlan's ability to talk to the Americans in the terms they like to hear. Market forces, for example: He will bring about a steep rise in the price of weapons, up to $6,000 for an assault rifle, so that the activists in the Palestinian organizations will not be able to refuse his offer to sell him the rifles, and he will not have to go looking for them.

The focus of the problem is the Fatah organization, the mainstream of the Palestinian community. Without a strong Fatah there will be no security apparatus, even if they are finally united under the aegis of Dahlan. However, there is no strong Fatah, because the ruling party, the people's movement, is split every which way: between Gaza and the West Bank and inside both regions, between locals who are survivors of the ordeals "inside" and the "outside" returnees from Tunisia, Beirut and Yemen, between cities and refugee camps, between "Tanzim-Iran" and "Tanzim-Arafat" and so on and so forth. Dahlan can impose his authority in the Gaza Strip, but is held in disdain in the West Bank.

Once again the Oslo syndrome is visible within the Palestinian leadership: weakness, self-indulgence, evasion of commitments, a projection of wretchedness aimed at the generosity of the strong. However, the Israelis who have been dealing with the Palestinian leadership for the past decade have no intention of falling for this again and thereby giving the situation a too upbeat reading. They are in favor of a gesture for the sake of a future prospect, against the risk of a rerun of the past.

It is against this background that the question of the prisoners has become so acute and fraught with crisis. The Palestinians are presenting it in terms of humanitarian compassion for the wretched prisoners and their families. Israelis are weighing it in political terms: how to strengthen the government of Abu Mazen's government without weakening the government of Ariel Sharon. Within the defense establishment this dilemma is overlaid by a perception that takes into account each individual name and organization: What will each of the released prisoners do and who will benefit from his release? From the world's point of view, it's the "prisoner problem"; from the point of view of the Shin Bet security service, it's about Ali from the Popular Front, the cousin of Ahmed from the Tanzim, from the tenement across from Manara Square in Ramallah.

The word is that the chief of staff, Lieutenant General Moshe Ya'alon, who was commander of the West Bank Division until shortly before the Oslo accords, and still remembers the wanted individuals he pursued and arrested, supports the release of Fatah activists who were imprisoned before Oslo. Prisoners who have spent less time in jail merit release if they did not commit murder and did not take part in anti-Israeli activity after September 2000. According to this approach, Marwan Barghouti, the Tanzim leader, will not be released until the final deal of the permanent-status settlement.

The Shin Bet draws a distinction between terrorist treasurers "who foot the bills for the bullets" - i.e., the money men of Hamas - and the "centers of know-how," meaning terrorist "engineers" in general and sabotage experts in particular. If they are released, they will pass on what they know to their comrades in Gaza and from there it will reach the West Bank (which also receives instruction from Iran via Lebanon). In previous cases, one of every two released prisoners returned to anti-Israel activity two, three or four times. Each time he is more experienced, better acquainted with the Israeli system and better able to prepare for interrogation by the Shin Bet. The trouble is that even their arrest, or their non-release, does not prevent them from disseminating their know-how: their prison milieu absorbs their knowledge and passes it on, to the outside. The decision that has to be made is between very bad and even worse; so in this period, the definition of optimism is seeing black only in half the arena.