Hopes for Mideast Peace Remain Clouded
LIANE HANSEN, host:
As has so often been the case in past years, the turn of the calendar brings little promise for peace in the Middle East. This weekend in Gaza City, masked gunmen stormed into a club for United Nations workers and blew up the drinking hall. In a separate incident, Israeli artillery fire killed two Palestinian militants in Gaza after rocket attacks were launched from the area. They were the first casualties since Israel imposed a no-go zone in northern Gaza to distant rocket launchers from southern Israel. NPR's Linda Gradstein reports.
LINDA GRADSTEIN reporting:
Almost four months ago when the last Israeli soldier pulled out of Gaza after 38 years of Israeli occupation, Palestinians celebrated what they hoped was a new beginning. The 1.4 million Palestinians of Gaza hoped the area's economy would flourish and that Gaza would become the model for an independent Palestinian state. But today armed gunmen roam the streets, foreigners are being kidnapped with increasing frequency and government buildings are taken over by gunmen almost daily.
In the West Bank, Israel continues to expand Jewish settlements and Israel's controversial barrier, which is being built in and around the West Bank, further restricts freedom of movement. Israel says the barrier, which it calls a fence, has helped stop suicide bombers from reaching Israel. Palestinians call it a wall and say Israel is trying to annex West Bank land. Mahdi Abdul Hadi, the head of a Palestinian think tank in East Jerusalem, says that less than a month before Palestinian legislative elections, the mood among Palestinians is bleak.
Mr. MAHDI ABDUL HADI (Analyst): Every city, every town, every village is a prison, not only because of the war, which was becoming like a sharp knife cutting our flesh but because of the closures, because of the sentiment of settlers and because of the fragmentation of the society.
GRADSTEIN: Moderates like Abdul Hadi hope that after the election later this month and Israeli elections in March, there will be a new return to negotiations.
Mr. ABDUL HADI: It's time to stop the bleeding in both societies, and yet nobody is doing that. The bleeding is continuing here and there. The nightmare in Israel about the suicide bomber attacks, the nightmare in the Palestinians for no future and the nightmare of war and prison--this culture of fear is crippling both societies.
GRADSTEIN: Many Israelis agree. They say the hopes that the withdrawal from Gaza would be a first step to a broader peace deal have evaporated. Gershom Gorenberg, an Israeli columnist and author of a book on Jewish settlements, says Israelis are disappointed with Abbas, also known by his nickname Abu Mazen.
Mr. GERSHOM GORENBERG (Israeli Columnist and Author): Abu Mazen has not been able to cement his rule to disarm groups that are opposed to him to make himself a monopoly on force, which makes it more difficult to negotiate with him, because how can you reach a peace agreement with somebody who doesn't control the violence on the other side?
GRADSTEIN: In recent weeks, Qassam rockets fired from northern Gaza have gotten closer to Israeli population centers, such as the city of Ashkelon and its large power plant. One rocket landed next to a nursery school as children were having a Hanukkah party. Israel last week imposed a three-mile no-go zone in Gaza that includes the ruins of three former Jewish settlements. Israel says anyone moving in this buffer zone will be targeted. Israeli officials also announced they will step up what Israel calls targeted killings of Palestinian militants. And yet, says Gorenberg, polls say most Israelis still say the Gaza withdrawal was the right move.
Mr. GORENBERG: Gaza was a quagmire. Gaza was a swamp. People did not want to be in Gaza. People did not want their children doing their army duty in Gaza or their family members doing reserve duty in Gaza. The recognition that ruling Gaza was a dead end had seeped in very deeply in the Israeli mainstream.
GRADSTEIN: After the Gaza pull-back, moderates on both sides said there was a new opportunity for peace, and they called for active American involvement to move forward. Now many believe that opportunity has been squandered. They worry that unless Abbas can end the chaos in Gaza and Israel allow Palestinians on the West Bank more freedom of movement, there will be more violence.
Linda Gradstein, NPR News, Jerusalem.
HANSEN: Also today, the Israeli government announced that Prime Minister Ariel Sharon will be hospitalized later this week to undergo surgery to repair a small hole in his heart. Sharon suffered a mild stroke a week ago. Doctors said the stroke had been caused by a blood clot that broke free from his heart.