An Intolerable Situation

Neither provocation nor error on Israel's part led to the outburst of shells fired at Gush Katif and the western Negev.

The objectors to the disengagement plan in Israel were not the only ones who held a dry run last week, to test their ability to disrupt the pullout. Hamas did, too. Both groups can announce a great success.

Despite the rosy picture painted by the police inspector general, the leadership of the radical right-wing group Habayit Haleumi demonstrated impressive dexterity in blocking traffic thoroughfares and harassing the public. At the same time, Hamas, despite the Israel Defense Forces' sophisticated intelligence, demonstrated their skill in driving Gush Katif residents into their shelters again.

These two jagged forces are closing in on the pullout initiative with a pincer movement, threatening to liquidate it.

Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) and Hamas appeared to have reached an understanding in the Cairo agreement regarding the latter joining the cease-fire and the political process in the Palestinian Authority. Abu Mazen refrained from conditioning this on disarming Hamas. Outgoing Chief of Staff Moshe Ya'alon, who has traditionally been in favor of giving credit to Abu Mazen's leadership, diagnosed that the chairman's failure indicates a worrisome weakness.

In internal debates, Ya'alon argued that Abu Mazen's feebleness should not be accepted or ignored, and that Israel must demand that he assert his leadership and force Hamas to lay down its weapons. Ya'alon assumed Hamas would choose to avoid confrontation and comply with the demand. The cabinet did not accept Ya'alon's position, and did not present Abu Mazen with an ultimatum.

This lenient approach was reflected in Israel's response to the suicide bombing at Tel Aviv's Stage nightclub. Instead of pressuring Abu Mazen to punish Islamic Jihad, which claimed responsibility for the blast, Israel held back. Thus, an unwritten understanding has emerged and become fixed in the public mind that Israel is absorbing increasing breaches of the cease-fire without exacting a price from Abu Mazen.

The motives for Israel's conduct are clear. First, Israel is not keeping the Sharm el-Sheikh understandings by failing to evacuate the illegal outposts, and by continuing to expand the outposts and to strengthen the settlements. Israel has also failed to complete the demarcation of the line beyond which it may not expand in the settlements. Israel continues to carry out occasional assassinations in the territories and to round up members of Palestinian terror groups. It is putting off the release of Palestinian prisoners and postponing the transfer of towns to Palestinian control.

Second, Ariel Sharon is backed into a corner of his own making, which obliges him to fulfill President George W. Bush's expectations in his conduct vis-a-vis Abu Mazen.

Third, the very implementation of the disengagement plan and Sharon's insistence on making it unilateral compel him to show restraint in view of the provocation of Hamas and the rest of the Palestinian rejectionist organizations. As a result, Sharon is, in fact, placing his initiative's fate in the hands of any common terrorist.

The framework Sharon has dictated for his initiative arouses justifiable criticism. He could have updated it following Yasser Arafat's death and given it momentum, both by agreeing to implement it in full coordination with the new Palestinian leadership and by setting a final settlement as the objective of negotiations. Had he done so, he would have improved the chance of effecting a major turning point in the dispute, and weakened the Palestinian opposition's ability to harass the Palestinian leadership.

However, Abu Mazen bears the main responsibility for the weekend's escalation in the Gaza Strip. As far as we could make out, neither provocation nor error on Israel's part led to the outburst of shells fired at Gush Katif and the western Negev, but a concerted Hamas effort to foist the municipal election results on Fatah.

Thus, the security of Israel's residents became a pawn in the internal Palestinian power struggle. This situation is intolerable. The United States must understand that its expectations of Israeli tolerance and restraint in view of Abu Mazen's fragile position must be accompanied by firm pressure on him to assert his leadership on the terror organizations. Otherwise, Sharon could lose the Israeli public's support for the disengagement plan.