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March 26, 2006 - Vol. 8, Issue 21

OCCUPATION ATROPHIES IDF; SUPPORT FOR SAUDI PEACE INITIATIVE; PALESTINIANS SUPPORT ARAB LEAGUE PLAN, JEWISH STATE; GAZA INVASION NOW?;

Editor's Note: The next edition of the Middle East Peace Report will be published on April 11 because of the Passover holiday.


OCCUPATION ATROPHIES IDF: "I say this very, very carefully, with caution, what I can say decisively, in my opinion, is that the army atrophied for 4-5 years with regard to its fitness. It atrophied. That is, inordinate attention was given to one subject only, the Palestinian issue, while other matters were neglected..." This sober statement was at the heart of the testimony of former IDF Military Intelligence chief Major General (res.) Amos Malka to the Winograd Commission, charged by the Israeli government to study Israel's actions in the 2006 war. Selected transcripts from the commission's meetings were released to the public last week.

General Malka added that "there was no point at which the [army] leadership understood that it had to shake off the concept of 'ongoing security operations,' of the territories, and in practice the entire set of actions of the first weeks [of the war] were done as if they were copies of operations in the territories. Meaning, the moment that you send small forces for specific missions, that's exactly what's done in the territories. The moment the brigade commanders sit by plasma [screens] and don't run forward [with the troops], that is what they do in the territories. In the territories, battalions are not led in maneuvers. There the brigade commander sits somewhere where control over the route is the most important thing and he sends a special team from the right, and the drone from the left. He controls the operation. I think there was a problem in the conception of what kind of event we were in. there was not a situation in which they internalized that the manner of fighting should have been different, i.e. it needed to get out of the Palestinian mindset and to return to a [different] mindset."

Vice Prime Minister Shimon Peres made similar statements to the Winograd Commission: "I think the army entered this war tired, because it was situated in a war that wasn't a war, which had no glory of victories. It was an [ongoing] effort to prevent a disaster. That's exhausting. Usually a soldier or an officer is a person who for twenty years studies and practices in preparation for five days of his life, because these five days are [the difference] between life and death. So he practices and practices, and it is difficult. But when for twenty years you are in a constant quarrel, you have no choice, you arrive tired to [those] final five days."

When Peres told the commission that "I thought that the IDF was not ready for this war," commission member Ruth Gavison asked, "how did you know?" Peres responded that "the IDF - and any army - is built to fight other armies. The war on terror is more like the war on crime. You kill one criminal and another, but it's hard to kill crime. Tomorrow another suicide [bomber] appears." (Yedioth Ahronoth, 3/23/07; Ha'aretz, 3/23/07;Winograd Commission Transcripts, 11/2 &11/7/06)

SUPPORT FOR SAUDI PEACE INITIATIVE: A statement signed by more than 100 leading Israeli and Palestinian figures on Saturday, in anticipation of the coming Arab League summit, noted that the Arab Peace Initiative "provides all interested and concerned parties with a comprehensive solution process in order to solve all the aspects of the Middle East conflict."

The Israeli signatories included former Cabinet officials, current and former Knesset Members from a range of political parties, leading writers and intellectual figures, high ranking former security officials, and veteran Peace Now leaders. Similarly, the Palestinian signatories include former Cabinet-level officials, members of the Palestinian Legislative Council, and an array of intellectual leaders.

Indeed, this week's Arab League summit is raising hopes for progress in Israel. Former Foreign Minister Shlomo Ben-Ami wrote last week in Ha'aretz that: "Politicians - who for decades have mesmerized the public with messianic visions, filled the land with settlements and condemned as traitors anyone who dared to call for dividing Jerusalem and returning territory - have finally learned the facts of life. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and even opposition leader and Likud Chair Benjamin Netanyahu are now committed to the Saudi peace initiative. Politicians, Abba Eban used to say, take the right decisions - but only after exhausting all other options."

Retired General Shlomo Gazit wrote an op-ed in the format of an open letter to Saudi Prince Bandar bin Sultan, in which he called on the Saudis to make a dramatic move: ".follow the path that was taken by Egyptian President Anwar Sadat 30 years ago. Let us not make the beginning of negotiations contingent upon decisions that Ehud Olmert makes. Things are too important and we mustn't squander the opportunity. I appeal to you-bypass the Israeli government, come to Jerusalem, speak directly to the people in Israel, and by so doing, force the government into adopting the peace initiative, to heed the voice of the overwhelming majority in Israel calling for the beginning of political negotiations. I appeal to you and ask-immediately after the end of the conference in Riyadh, announce publicly that you too would like to come to Jerusalem, and that you intend to present to the people in Israel and the government in Jerusalem the decisions that were made at the summit meeting, and that you want to discuss immediately how to begin negotiations at once. No government in Israel will be able to reject that kind of initiative. No government will be able to evade the peace process. The weakness of the coalition in the Knesset will fail to withstand the pressure and the unequivocal call from the masses, who will welcome you with flowers." (IMRA, 3/25/07; Ha'aretz, 3/19/07; Ma'ariv, 3/19/07)

PALESTINIANS SUPPORT ARAB LEAGUE PLAN, JEWISH STATE: A new poll finds that 72% of Palestinians support the Saudi, or Arab, initiative. Moreover, 63% support mutual recognition of Israel as the state for the Jewish people and Palestine as the state for the Palestinian people after the establishment of a Palestinian state and the resolution of all issues of conflict. (This formulation, "Israel as the state for the Jewish people," is important to many Israelis in part because it implies that Palestinian refugees should not be settled in Israel).

71% support negotiations with Israel in order to reach an interim stage where a Palestinian state is established in Gaza and much of the West Bank, followed by negotiations on the other issues of the conflict, including permanent borders, refugees, and holy places.

85% support the current ceasefire in the Gaza Strip. 84% support the extension of the current ceasefire to include the West Bank. Despite this support, only 53% expect it to last while 43% expect it to collapse in the near future.

The poll was conducted by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip during March 22-24, 2007. Total size of the sample is 1270 adults interviewed face to face in 127 randomly selected locations. The margin of error is 3%.(PCPSR, 3/26/07)

GAZA INVASION NOW? Former Justice Minister Yosef (Tommy) Lapid writes derisively in Ma'ariv about "growing pressure" for Israel "to invade Gaza 'before it is too late.' " Lapid does not dismiss the dangerous potential of a flow of arms to Gaza. But he argues that "invading Gaza is an illusion, the remnants of the attitude of boastfulness and complacency, which apparently survived despite what happened to the IDF in Lebanon. Should we invade Gaza and take responsibility for the subsistence of a million unemployed, hungry Palestinians? Invade Gaza and search every workshop for Kassam rocket pipes? Turn over every basement in every house to find arms? Dig under every hut on Philadelphi Road to expose tunnels? After all, we have already been there, already invaded and controlled and searched and arrested and killed-and also combed the ground with spoons for body parts of our soldiers. What good did that do?"

How does Lapid propose that Israel handle the new Palestinian government? "As time passes, we will see whether there is a chance that the current Hamas-Fatah coalition will choose a moderate path, which will wear down Hamas's rigidity, as happened to Fatah. In that case, there may be someone to talk to and something to talk about. If not tomorrow, then in a year or two." (Ma'ariv, 3/21/07)

SETTLERS INTERRUPT IDF TRAINING SCHEDULE: Defending Israelis from attacks by Palestinians is not the only strain on the IDF's resources. A campaign to re-establish the West Bank settlement of Homesh (dismantled by Israel in 2005) over Passover, beginning with a march to the site today, reportedly required the IDF to stop most of the training underway on the Golan Heights in order to send the troops to the West Bank to enforce the law and to protect the right-wing activists from attack. The interrupted training was intended to correct the IDF's lack of preparedness discovered during the Second Lebanon War.

The army on Saturday warned settlers to abandon their plans. An unusual statement by the IDF read: "In view of media reports that Israeli citizens intend to enter the area of the evacuated settlement Homesh during the Pesach holiday in order to reestablish the community, the IDF and the Israel Police wish to emphasize that the law enabling the disengagement bans Israeli citizens from entering and staying in the area without permission." The penalty for violating this law is two years imprisonment. A police statement added, "this event will require the presence of security forces who are busy implementing the lessons of the Second Lebanon War, and also places further burden on the security forces who are engaged in protecting the citizenry during the upcoming holidays." Assistant Commander Kobi Cohen, head of the Samaria District Police, also sent a personal letter last week to the three people who organized the event - Benny Katzover, Yossi Dagan, and Boaz Haetzni - warning that their activity was going to be a gross violation of the law.

On Sunday, however, reports surfaced that the Israeli government reached an understanding with the protestors. On Monday, Israel Radio reported that the IDF would not block protestors from reaching the site so that the right wing activists would not travel through Palestinian villages, a potentially dangerous situation. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert explained his understanding that the event was to be "a visit, which will continue through the day, and end in the evening, when people will leave. I hope that this is what will be, and that there will be no need to use other means to cause the place to be evacuated."

But event organizer Haetzni told Army Radio on Monday that "there is a nucleus of 30 families who intend to live there. All the others are [coming to] encourage, to help, to celebrate, and we hope that there will be more than 5,000."

A few hundred Israel Police and Border Police troops will be deployed in the area, as will about one thousand IDF soldiers. Last week military officials estimated that the operation in Homesh will cost the IDF NIS 5 million (about $1.2 million). Israel Police expected to spend approximately NIS 4 million (about $950,000) every day. (Ma'ariv 3/25/07; Haaretz, 3/25 &3/26/07; Israel Radio, 3/23 & 3/26/07)

SHELL GAME: Under the cover of darkness, hundreds of settlers seized control of a large four-story structure on the outskirts of Hebron last Monday. The settlers allegedly purchased the property for about $700,000 through an agent in Jordan. However, a local Palestinian man, Fais Rajabi, claims that he is the rightful owner. "I bought this house with my hard-earned money, no one ever made any claims in the past, but apparently the settlers saw that all I had left to do was finish tiling and they decided that this is the right moment for them to steal the house," Rajabi told Ynet. He claims to have invested about $1 million in the construction of the 3,500 square meter building.

Defense Minister Amir Peretz ordered a legal investigation into the matter. A letter from Peace Now's attorney to Peretz noted that, under the standing military orders which govern the West Bank, the purchase of property by Israelis in densely populated Palestinian areas is not binding without the permission of the defense minister. Moreover, implementation of a real estate deal in violation of these orders is a criminal act punishable by five years imprisonment.

Settler activist Moshe Meron seeks to deter Israeli law enforcement agencies: "there has to be large presence here [of right-wing activists], so that the General Security Service, the police and the IDF realize that there will be no eviction here." He added that "what happened at Amona was nothing compared to what there will be here."

Dozens of Peace Now demonstrators arrived at the site on Sunday to call on Peretz and Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to take immediate action. Knesset Member Avshalom Vilan (Meretz), who joined the demonstration, said that "Peretz must decide whether he wants to build another Jewish settlement here and set Hebron on fire, or whether he wants calm. The Israeli government needs to extinguish this flame before it's too late." (Ynet, 3/20 & 3/25/07; Hatzofe, 3/22/07; Yedioth Ahronoth, 3/20 & 3/21; PeaceNow.org.il, 3/20/07; Hebron.org.il, 3/21/07)

SHELL GAME, PART II: Vice Prime Minister Shimon Peres said Tuesday that the presence of settlers inside the West Bank city of Hebron has created an "unbearable situation." Noting that the settlement of Kiryat Arba, on the outskirts of Hebron, had been built so that a Jewish community could exist alongside, rather than within, a Palestinian community, Peres commented: "It is very hard to have both at the same time." Peres added that "the current situation is unbearable and it is absolutely clear to me that we must find a solution, and a quick one, and at this stage to uphold the law."

Yedioth Ahronoth recalls that settlers have repeatedly "broken into Palestinian homes in Hebron, such as the wholesale market and Beit Shapira, presenting ownership deeds. Nevertheless, the settlers were forced to leave the premises. In one case the evacuation was carried out voluntarily and in another [incident] settlers who holed up in a building were forcibly removed." A local Palestinian group provided more detailed reporting: A report of incidents in Hebron during 2006, edited by Abed al-Hadi Chankash, documented 2 takeovers of Palestinian homes, 6 incidents of invasion into homes by settlers who were removed, and 18 failed attempts. The group also reported 430 incidents of homes being stoned and one incident of a home being burned down.

Indeed, the tension in Hebron is high. Ynet recently obtained a recording from an IDF soldier who was stationed in the city recounting "ongoing harassment, violence and theft perpetrated by the settlers." In another incident in the news last week, construction equipment was stolen from a Hebron house, which was being repaired following damage reportedly inflicted by settlers. In the case of this home, the Israeli High Court of Justice had ordered the IDF to guard the renovations. (Ynet,3/19 & 3/20/07; Yedioth Ahronoth, 3/20/07; Ha'aretz, 3/20/07)