In Gaza, All Sides Chafe at Cease-Fire

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Under floodlights casting an eerie yellow wash, Capt. Avi Rahamin steered his armored car through the nighttime streets of this remote Jewish settlement, pointing out spots hit by mortar fire from the Palestinian surroundings.

A husband-wife pair of Jewish settlers strolled by, pushing a baby carriage, despite the late hour and potential for attack.

"Very dangerous," Rahamin said, shaking his head.

The most intense fighting in nearly nine months of Israeli-Palestinian clashes has taken place here in the Gaza Strip, where Israeli troops guard small numbers of Jewish settlers who live in heavily fortified enclaves among more than 1 million impoverished Palestinians. The Palestinians want the settlers out; Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon insists on maintaining them as a way to exert strategic control over Gaza and the West Bank.

Rahamin commands a large platoon defending about 30 families in Kfar Darom, a mostly agricultural settlement known for its lettuce.

He and his men, part of the Givati Brigade, are chafing at a week-old cease-fire that they claim has tied their hands while failing to stop their enemy. The Israeli army has been instructed to hold fire except when soldiers' lives are in danger; before the truce, rules on opening fire were more lax.

"As far as the Palestinians are concerned, there is no cease-fire. We've had shootings, mortars--even after the cease-fire was declared," Rahamin said. "But for us, we sometimes are fired at and can't return fire. It makes my job a lot more complicated. It is difficult to explain to the soldiers."

His complaint, echoed to the highest echelons of the Israeli military, may soon be moot. Sharon has been reconsidering the truce after two settlers were slain in Palestinian attacks this week. Since the cease-fire brokered by CIA Director George J. Tenet went into effect last week, four Israelis and six Palestinians have been killed.

Ending a two-day "reassessment" of the cease-fire, Sharon's government decided Wednesday not to annul the agreement--yet. But it has authorized other measures to enact when it sees fit. Several Cabinet ministers advocated a return to the practice of targeting and killing suspected terrorists.

Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat said Wednesday that the Israeli government's support for a cease-fire has been "a lie" aimed at deceiving international public opinion. He noted that numerous Israeli roadblocks remain in place, despite a requirement to lift the blockade of Palestinian towns as part of the truce. Israel said Wednesday that it won't end the siege or pull back troops further until the violence stops.

At Kfar Darom, the men from the Givati Brigade are about to leave after a tour of duty that was unexpectedly elongated by the fighting. They should have been out of here months ago. Reservists will replace them.

Their outpost is a narrow, dusty installation reinforced with heavy slabs of concrete and ringed by thick-walled bunkers. Much of what used to be Palestinian farmland and orchards has been mowed down, cleared away to deprive guerrillas of shooting positions, especially along the road that traverses the Gaza Strip from south to north and passes Kfar Darom. Several Palestinian houses also have been demolished or are occupied by Israeli army snipers.

The soldiers said that although mortar fire aimed at Kfar Darom remains a serious threat--six shells have hit in the last three weeks--the gun battles, which were frequent three months ago, have tapered off considerably in recent weeks.

"Before, there'd be a shooting incident almost every night," said Sgt. Michael Guttman, manning the gated entrance to the settlement. "Between 8 and 11 p.m., or 8 [p.m.] and 2 a.m., all hell could break loose."

The men often ended up spending night after night in the bunkers, which are studded with gun emplacements open toward Palestinian areas. Two soldiers were killed in November when a Palestinian police officer infiltrated the outpost. That same month, two settlers were killed and three of their children lost limbs when their school bus was bombed. More than 20 Palestinians have been killed in the area in various circumstances, according to Palestinian residents.

If the soldiers are impatient with the cease-fire, Jewish settlers are positively on the warpath.

"Where is Arik Sharon?" demanded Yosef Badihi, using the prime minister's nickname. "Your people are being killed, every day! Every day!"

Badihi was driving a white station wagon, which had been hit by a mortar last week when it was parked outside his Kfar Darom home. Where the window glass used to be, he had placed a cardboard sign with a drawing of the state of Israel: The whole country is one front, it says.

"Cease-fire? Nonsense," said Badihi, a father of seven with a long salt-and-pepper beard. He said he moved to Kfar Darom after the November bus bombing as a gesture of solidarity.

After this week's killing of the two settlers, Israel tightened the closure in places where it had been eased, digging more trenches and erecting more berms. Many Palestinians are frustrated at what they see as Israel's failure to comply with the cease-fire.

Ahmed Saker, a truck driver from Gaza City, waited nearly three hours to get through the Israeli checkpoint near Kfar Darom, where the road has been split to force Palestinians to drive on one congested side while Jewish settlers have the other side to themselves.

"If a settler passes, they stop the whole Palestinian queue until he passes," said 19-year-old Saker. "Every five minutes, they open the road and allow five or 10 cars and then close it again."

Muna abu Shaweesh, whose 9-year-old son, Ali, was shot to death by Israeli troops during a stone-throwing clash Sunday, also had little use for the U.S.-brokered agreement.

"They always talk about cease-fire. Where is the cease-fire?" she asked as she sat in mourning, surrounded by her seven other children and a group of angry relatives.

On Wednesday, the Israeli military shot to death another Palestinian, who the army said was resisting arrest at a checkpoint. Meanwhile, a Jewish settler was killed by Palestinian gunmen in a village in the West Bank.

Sharon is under mounting pressure from settlers and his right-wing supporters to end the cease-fire and, as they put it, "go to war" against the Palestinian Authority. Settler leaders warned Wednesday that they risk losing control of the most extremist vigilante elements of their community. Settlers have repeatedly rampaged and burned Palestinian property after each killing.

Palestinian militia leaders have made it clear that they consider settlers legitimate targets. Settlements are illegal under international law and have long been considered by many to be an obstacle to a final peace agreement.

Each killing of a settler makes it harder for Sharon to continue with the truce. For now, he is eager to keep the U.S. government on his good side. But opposition from Sharon's natural constituents is fierce.

Shaul Yahalom, a parliament member from the right-wing National Religious Party, said, "We are like ducks sitting in a shooting gallery, maintaining a cease-fire for the sake of diplomatic benefits."

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