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Publisher\Editor Don Canaan

                       April 12, 1996 V4, #66
All the News the Big Guys Missed

Closure Continues for West Bank and Gaza

By Al Pessin (VOA-Jerusalem)

Two leading Palestinian officials have expressed concern that the current closure of the Palestinian territories and other Israeli policies -- which are supposed to be temporary -- could have a serious long-term negative impact on the peace process.

Just a few months ago, the Israeli-Palestinian peace process appeared to be going fairly smoothly -- with Israel withdrawing from West Bank cities and the Palestinians holding their first elections. Then, two months ago, a leading Palestinian militant was assassinated -- in an operation widely blamed on Israel -- and his supporters launched a series of four bomb attacks in Israel, which killed 62 people. Israel responded with a tough closure of the territories, suspension of most contacts with Palestinian officials and a broad crackdown on anyone suspected of sympathizing with the militants.

Many Israelis and Palestinians see the harsh Israeli moves as designed to soothe Israeli public opinion in advance of the elections, set for May 29. And many expect the measures to be eased afterwards if the ruling Labor Party wins. But longtime peace activist and Palestinian Cabinet member Faisal Husseini is worried that the Israeli policy represents more than that, perhaps a change of Israeli strategy. He says the policy has created the worst crisis in Israeli-Palestinian relations since Israel captured the West Bank and Gaza in 1967.

"From our relations with the Israelis our feeling (is) that what they are doing now is not only a reaction for what happened, but it is a new strategy, which goes back for a very old strategy: that they want us to have nothing. We believe that the Labor Party is ready to work with us, as a partnership, and they can deal with us within this understanding. Now, what they are doing, there is no partnership. So, I believe that both sides must be brave enough, courageous enough, to come sit together, and to go on as partners."

But Husseini does not see any evidence that the current Labor-led Israeli government is willing to do that, and he says the situation has shaken his faith in the ideas of dialogue and peaceful coexistence he has advocated for years.

Not surprisingly, Israeli government spokesman Uri Dromi has a different version. He says the closure and the related Israeli policies toward the Palestinians are aimed first and foremost at stopping terrorists. But while he will not say specifically that they are also aimed at increasing Prime Minister Shimon Peres' security image for the elections, Dromi says harsh measures are justified if they can renew Israeli public support for the peace process.

"Maybe, in doing the utmost, which is, among other things, imposing this closure, we are doing more than was needed just for security reasons. But we're doing so in order to maintain the confidence of Israelis that Israel, while pursuing peace, Israel is defending them. Because if you're going lose these Israelis, then you don't have a peace process in the first place."

But Husseini, and his Palestinian colleague Hanan Ashrawi say that in the process, Israel is losing the hard-won support of the Palestinian people for the peace process. And Ashrawi says Israel is also doing things which can not be attributed to any security, political or public relations motive.

"These things are not just verbal. They are not issues of heightened rhetoric and electioneering and campaign propaganda. These are actions on the ground that are transforming realities and are pre-empting the outcome of the substantive issues that are supposed to be (part of) permanent status (talks). They are superimposing an Israeli reality, unilaterally, which negates the very substance of the peace process."

Ashrawi and Husseini say the long term impact of that is too serious to justify with any short-term political goals. A senior Israeli military officer has expressed similar concerns, and the government has approved some easing of the closure as a result. But no analyst expects Israel to make any substantial change in its crackdown policy -- of the sort that might satisfy Ashrawi and Husseini -- at least until after the elections.

Israeli officials say the policy could save the peace process, but the two Palestinian officials say the policy could destroy the peace process instead.

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