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IDF Lieutenant Colonel Yehuda Yohnof, commander of the Paratrooper 890 battalion, took up his stint at Beit Jala without knowing how or when it will end. He is not likely to make it home for the weekend - the officer will apparently either have his Shabbat meals in the Palestinian town itself, or on its border with the Gilo neighborhood, where his troops could assemble and wait to re-enter the "A" area in Beit Jala the moment the first mortar is fired at Gilo.

It was largely fortuitous that the 890 battalion, the veteran infantry force on which Ariel Sharon directed reprisal raids in the 1950's, was chosen for this Beit Jala assignment. Times have changed in the IDF and in 2001, the 890 brigade was sent on its current assignment with considerable caution, rather unlike the style of the Sharon-led years in the 1950s.

Without much enthusiasm, the IDF General Staff relayed the recent order to the 890 battalion and the Paratrooper force was instructed to fulfill its Beit Jala mission under the cover of nightfall. Two anonymous men, perhaps close in age and appearance, will determine the IDF's next moves in the Gilo-Beit Jala theater. For now, they are more important than the official leaders, Ariel Sharon and Yasser Arafat.

One is known as "Yusef," from Bethlehem, a Fatah or Popular Front operative, who goes about in his pick-up truck, and fires makeshift 60 mm shells at Gilo, before slipping into nearby, dark alleyways. Another is some average Israeli - call him Yosef - who might have entered Gilo out of curiosity, to see what's going on in the neighborhood, and to be seen in it. Should Yusef cause injury to Yosef, the IDF troops are likely to remain in the Beit Jala area.

Some half dozen Palestinians with ragtag mortars made a mockery last night of Shimon Peres' attempt to forge a Beit Jala-Gilo agreement. They made Peres look naive and foolish, like a leader who doesn't learn from experience. Peres has believed Arafat's word hundreds of times - hundreds of times he has been let down and yet he continues to believe.

Yesterday the efforts to wrest an agreement from Arafat persisted, and there were intelligence reports indicating that at long last, PA police would deter gunmen from continuing with the attacks against Gilo.

But senior IDF officers remained skeptical, doubting that an abrupt end to the assault against Gilo could be forged. Their skepticism proved to be on the mark.