The cease-fire between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization is breaking down rapidly as Israeli forces, operating largely undercover and striking through ambushes, hunt fugitive guerrillas in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
Challenged on their home turf and embarrassed by the failure of the increasingly controversial pact with Israel to bring immediate peace, PLO units are starting to fight back in daily skirmishes with Israeli patrols.
Without new cease-fire orders from Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat and rapid progress in the negotiations on implementing the agreement on Palestinian self-government, the clashes appear likely to escalate and spread, seriously jeopardizing the autonomy accord as it comes into effect over the next several months.
After a series of firefights with Israeli troops in the Gaza Strip in the past 10 days, one PLO faction, the Fatah Hawks, declared Monday that it would resume its attacks on Israelis--civilian as well as military--in southern Gaza. Israeli forces quickly arrested, after a shootout, a 24-year-old Palestinian they identified as the Hawks’ commander in southern Gaza.
“The Fatah Hawks promise revenge for the killing of Hawk Ahmed abu el Reesh,” the group had declared. It called on people to “do everything possible to inflict human losses on the enemy side” and thus protest the death of Reesh, who was killed by an Israeli undercover unit Sunday night even though he had surrendered a week earlier and been given amnesty.
Although a formal cease-fire was not part of the autonomy agreement, signed in September, Arafat had ordered all PLO units to halt the “armed struggle” against the Israeli occupation. And Israeli forces had avoided clashes with those PLO supporters after an initial campaign against them.
“This is the end of Arafat’s resolution on stopping the stabbings of soldiers,” a spokesman for the Fatah Hawks told journalists in Gaza City after the funeral for Reesh on Monday. “Israel has stopped abiding by its commitments, and that frees us to return to battle.”
Senior leaders of Fatah, the mainline PLO group led by Arafat, immediately repudiated the Hawks’ statement and reiterated their support for the autonomy accord. But the feeling remained that those with the guns, Palestinian and Israeli alike, had lost patience with the slow movement of the ongoing peace negotiations and were siding with the militants and radicals on both sides.
Israeli officials argue that there was never a formal cease-fire with the PLO, that Fatah cells had violated Arafat’s orders and thus broken what understanding there was, and that Israel remains responsible for security under the terms of the agreement.
“We have no case to answer, no apology to make,” a senior Israeli official said Monday.
But Police Minister Moshe Shahal said he had met Sunday night with two leading PLO officials, Faisal Husseini and Ziad abu Zayyad, in “an attempt to examine whether there is some creative proposal to solve the problems that exist.” Husseini took “some ideas” to Arafat at PLO headquarters in Tunis, Tunisia, on Monday, Shahal said.
Rabin, in an apparent effort to defuse the tension, said that Israel would resume the release of Palestinian prisoners it is holding, but he stopped short of a commitment to the full release of the estimated 10,000 that Israel has in its prisons and detention camps.
The militant Islamic Resistance Movement, part of the hard-core opposition to the autonomy agreement, meanwhile renewed its threats of revenge for the killing of three of its members, two of them senior commanders, and the roundup of several other cells.
Hamas, as the organization is known, ordered its units to kidnap and kill Israeli soldiers and Jewish settlers in the Gaza Strip and West Bank in retaliation, pledging to make the “ground burn beneath their feet.” Israeli officers described the threat as unprecedented in its sheer ferocity.
“There will be new methods,” Hamas said. “We won’t reveal them in this statement. Rabin will know them at the appropriate time. We promise Allah that we shall make Rabin, that king of criminals, bite his lips in pain.”
Hamas fought the agreement even before it was signed, but open dissension by Fatah members in Gaza and the West Bank is new.
“This is the most dangerous time--we don’t have peace, we don’t have war--and everything could be lost,” a senior Israeli official said Monday. “I fear we may win most of what we want at the negotiating table but lose everything we need on the streets, including the support of the people.”
On Monday evening, there was widespread rioting in the Gaza Strip as Palestinians stoned Israeli troops, hurled firebombs and homemade explosives at them and erected barricades of burning tires. The violence followed the funeral for Reesh; a number of casualties, Israeli and Palestinian, were reported.
Last week, Palestinians had protested against the ambush killing of a Hamas leader in Gaza in the worst violence in three months.
“It has now become fairly regular for the crimes of the Israeli occupation forces . . . to overshadow news of progress in the peace process,” commented the Israeli Arab newspaper Al-Ittihad. “They are altogether too trigger-happy.”
Although Israel maintains it is “cleansing” the area of Islamic radicals prior to withdrawing its forces, PLO supporters contend that this violates the spirit of political understandings between the two sides. They say they are also being caught up in the manhunt.
On Sunday, 35 Fatah activists were arrested in a general sweep through Khan Yunis in southern Gaza.