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Israel, Palestinians warily agree to truce

"We should have no illusions about the difficulties ahead,'' President Clinton says as gunbattles continue.

©New York Times

© St. Petersburg Times, published October 18, 2000


SHARM EL-SHEIKH, Egypt -- After 28 hours of intensive diplomatic intervention, the Israelis and the Palestinians agreed on Tuesday to take immediate steps to apply a tourniquet to the bloodshed and prevent the raging violence in the West Bank and Gaza from turning into a cataclysmic escalation.

Israel will reopen the Gaza airport, end the border closings, and withdraw forces now stationed at the edge of Palestinian territories, according to the agreement. The Palestinians will restrain the riots and gunbattles, clamp down on incitement against Israel and rearrest Islamic fundamentalists who were released from prison last week.

President Clinton, eyes puffy from lack of sleep, announced the truce on Tuesday afternoon at the head of a horseshoe-shaped table filled with foreign leaders who flew in to mediate the crisis. Prime Minister Ehud Barak of Israel and Yasser Arafat, the Palestinian leader, sat far apart, made no eye contact and -- an American decision -- did not utter a word.

The cease-fire understanding, produced amid considerable acrimony, was considered too fragile to be put at risk by public statements. Even as it was being announced, some Palestinians in the West Bank were protesting that Arafat, who left Egypt quickly to return to Gaza, had been railroaded into accepting watered-down compromises on his key demands.

Clinton addressed each side's uncertainty about whether the cease-fire would be respected. The days ahead will be a crucial test period, all agree, of the leaders' resolve and of whether the rage that has been released can be contained.

"We have made important commitments here today against the backdrop of tragedy and crisis," Clinton said. "We should have no illusions about the difficulties ahead."

In a sign of their deteriorated relationship, the two sides made no commitments directly to each other. Nor did they put anything in writing.

Rather, the Israelis and the Palestinians both made separate verbal promises to the Americans, who will return to a former, entangled role as broker, police officer and judge of their behavior.

The Americans played that role while Benjamin Netanyahu was prime minister of Israel. Barak sought to end it when he took office, preferring to establish a face-to-face dynamic with the Palestinians. But that dynamic has become a mutual cold shoulder.

Clinton said on Tuesday that the Israelis and Palestinians had agreed to make unequivocal public calls for an end of violence as a kind of reveille trumpeting the start of the truce.

After he arrived home, Barak issued a statement, saying that he had instructed security forces to carry out the agreement and work jointly with their American and Palestinian counterparts. Indeed, a security cooperation meeting was planned for late Tuesday night between Israeli and Palestinian officers whose forces have been shooting at each other in recent weeks.

"I would like to emphasize that the Israeli Defense Forces and Israel Police will take great care to halt the violence and prevent additional loss of life," Barak said. "In recent weeks, violence has surged in our region and Israeli and Palestinian lives have been lost. We regret this.

"We now have before us an additional opportunity to get back on track toward stability, coexistence and cooperation," Barak continued. "I expect that our Palestinian neighbors share this hope with us."

Returning to Gaza, Arafat made a brief statement that reserved judgment on the agreement. "The most important thing is implementation and we expect an honest and accurate one," he said. It was unclear when and if he would make his public call for an end to the violence, although the agreement does not stipulate that he has to do so personally.

Barak said that Israel would pull back its heavy military equipment in 48 hours if quiet descended.

But the reality on the ground presented an immediate challenge to such aspirations.

A world away from this shimmering Red Sea resort town, Palestinian militants said they rejected the call to lay down their rocks and guns, noting that they were in the midst of an uprising. Gunbattles erupted in Nablus and Gaza. A Palestinian man was killed by Jewish settlers, who said later that they had acted in self defense.

And, unthinkable just weeks ago, Jewish residents of the Gilo neighborhood in Jerusalem flung themselves on the ground as bullets rained onto their streets. Also unthinkable, Israeli tanks shot back at the source of fire in the Arab neighborhood of Beit Jala.

Asked here if Arafat was capable of restoring order, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright said, "He may not be totally in control of everything but he has the authority."

Tuesday's agreement was not celebrated in Sharm el-Sheikh, merely presented in a tense, somber ceremony presided over Clinton and President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt. American and Egyptian officials issued great sighs of relief that they had averted failure, which could have worsened the conflict. But Mubarak acknowledged that the agreement would disappoint many.

"The outcome we have reached in this summit may not meet the expectations of all peoples," he said.

The Palestinians were particularly disappointed that an international inquiry into the recent violence was not mandated. Originally, Arafat set that as a precondition for attending the talks. But Mubarak and U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan persuaded him to present the issue at the talks instead.

The Israelis oppose such an inquiry, which one official said would turn into a "kangaroo court."

The Palestinians agreed to a modification of what they wanted: an American-led fact-finding committee that will work in consultation with Annan. Its conclusions would ultimately be published as a report of the American president.

Over the course of the talks, the Israelis withdrew their demand that the Palestinians act first, restraining the violence before they pulled back their troops. They agreed that both sides would take steps to curtail the violence simultaneously.

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