All's Getting Quiet on the Southern Front

A visit to Gaza nearly two weeks after the Palestinian Authority and armed factions agreed on a period of "calm" - meaning no attacks on Israel - reveals a surprising level of satisfaction among Israel Defense Forces officers concerning the cooperation and coordination achieved with the Palestinians.

The improved relations are not merely reflected in the dramatic decline in the number of incidents, from 100 a week two months ago to barely 10 a week, but also in the personal contacts between the two sides.

"I was a brigade commander in the days of Oslo," said one sector commander, "and we didn't believe a single word the Palestinian officers told us then. This time, we went in with a lot of skepticism, but I have to admit that they are keeping their word."

The coordination is seen in actions taken against terrorism and also in the joint investigations that are held after an attack that has caused casualties, with the sides managing - surprisingly - to reach conclusions acceptable to both. Thus, in the wake of the incident involving the death of a Palestinian girl in Dir al-Balah a month ago, both sides agreed, after an inquiry, that the girl was hit by Israeli shrapnel fired from an IDF outpost in response to a Qassam launch.

In another case involving a dead girl, in Rafah, the Palestinians at first blamed Israeli forces, but conducted an inquiry of their own and reached the conclusion that this was not possible. Eventually a Palestinian youth was arrested in this case: He had been firing in the air to welcome the return of some pilgrims from Gaza, and one of the bullets he fired hit the girl.

There have been periods of optimism in the past - most notably, the 50-day hudna (cease-fire) in the summer of 2003 - but IDF officers are saying that the coordination this time runs much deeper and that the Palestinian intentions are more serious than ever before.

"They aren't playing around with us," said a senior officer. "There's no double talk. When we have an agreement with them on a PA patrol being some place at a certain time, they're there. And there's no more PA police standing by idly while a few meters away someone fires at us."

The "spirit of the commander," say these officers, referring to PA head Mahmoud Abbas, has infiltrated the ranks, and is apparent in the appointments being made in the PA security forces in Gaza. Many of the old-timers from Tunis have been removed, replaced by new officers who are graduates of Israeli prisons, know Hebrew and can "read" Israeli intentions much better than their predecessors.

But the Palestinian effort falls short of Israeli expectations for "a chain of prevention" - i.e., arresting suspects, interrogating them, checking the information they provide and then charging them and putting them on trial. It's easier for the PA to deal with issues like the smuggling tunnels; indeed, they've shut down 15 so far. It's not only more photogenic, it reveals a clear-cut Palestinian interest in stopping the smuggling of contraband.

Israel, very slowly, is responding to the quiet with some moves aimed at easing the economic conditions of the Palestinians. The most important remains the opening of the Gush Katif junction, which connects northern and southern Gaza, so Palestinian traffic is able to move along the road 24 hours a day.

According to Col. Yoav Mordechai, the 1,300 Palestinian merchants and workers who now have permits to cross the newly reopened Erez junction to work in Israel should grow to several thousand in the coming weeks. Another 1,000 will go back to work at Erez, and there are 3,000 who still work in the settlements.

Mordechai said that Moussa Arafat, who heads PA security in Gaza, told him that shops are staying open until 8 P.M. now in Gaza City, "and that's a sign of some recovery," he said.