Major General Yaakov Or, the coordinator of government activities in the territories, has invested the last three-and-a-half years in slowly and carefully building up a broad network of contacts with the Palestinian Authority. Or has met with everyone – often with Arafat himself, with senior officials in the PA chair’s office and his Fatah faction, merchants and businessmen, the heads of the Palestinian security services and ministers in the Palestinian cabinet.
These ties have helped Or to nurture an atmosphere of virtual normalization in the relationship between the two sides. They have helped him solve problems and remove bureaucratic obstacles. But first and foremost, these ties were designed to help him “put out the fires” should Israelis and Palestinians start shooting at each other.
Since the end of last week, Or has been watching his handiwork go down the drain. This time, unlike during the Western Wall tunnel riots in 1996, the cellular phones have at least remained open: Senior PA officials have returned their Israeli colleagues’ phone calls, yet verbal agreements were never implemented.
Again and again, the Palestinians promised to stop the shooting, but failed to honor their commitments. Or and other senior security officials gradually began to suspect that Arafat is simply not interested in stopping the violence just yet. On the one hand, he sends the heads of his security services for talks with Israel; while on the other, he urges the Tanzim leaders to continue the rioting.
The theory that Or marketed to several prime ministers and defense ministers was that economic development would prevent violence. Joint projects, industrial and commercial parks along the border between Israel and the PA, even high-tech ventures would increase the cost of violence for the PA and would cause many Palestinians to think twice before supporting a confrontation with Israel.
At the same time, Or warned Barak several times that without real progress in the talks with the Palestinians, an explosion could be expected. Barak did offer concessions at Camp David. But this weekend, the explosion took place anyway.
The IDF believes the events are a clever ploy devised by Arafat, exploiting the opportunity presented to him by the visit of Likud Chairman Ariel Sharon to the Temple Mount to focus the struggle of the Palestinians on the issue of Jerusalem.
Security sources, noting the presence of one of the heads of the PA security services, Tawfiq Dirawi, on the Temple Mount on Friday, believe that Arafat lit the fire, even if he is now having trouble controling the intensity of the flames.
The Palestinians reject this theory. They say that Arafat has no control over what is happening, that he is simply being dragged along by the events in the street and that the confrontation was brought on by a sense of profound frustration and injustice over issues such as land, water, Israel’s use of military force and, more than anything else, Jerusalem.
Israeli security officials are having trouble deciphering the behavior of the Palestinian street. Army officers, and intelligence experts in particular, tend to see the events in an organized fashion: Someone is issuing the orders and others are executing them.
Analysis of the Palestinian mood has been lacking, especially since most Palestinians no longer live in territory controlled by Israel. On the other hand, there is evidence to support Israel’s assessment: the conversation Arafat had with the heads of the Tanzim on Friday, in which he urged them to escalate their demonstrations, the organized transport to demonstration sites and the conspicuous involvement of Tanzim leaders and PA security forces in some of the confrontations.
The heads of the PA security services, said Deputy Chief of Staff Major General Moshe Ya’alon on Sunday, are caught between a rock and a hard place. The IDF charges that Arafat is sending unclear instructions to Mohammed Dahlan and Jibril Rajoub. And if the PA is truly going to war, Ya’alon said, Dahlan and Rajoub have no interest in trying to calm the situation and thereby appearing as collaborators with Israel.
On Saturday afternoon, Chief of Staff Shaul Mofaz believed that he had succeeded in extinguishing the fire. At a press conference in Beit El, the military headquarters in the West Bank, Mofaz said he had spoken with Dahlan and Rajoub and the three had agreed to make an effort to stop the fighting at 4 P.M. A minute after Mofaz left the room, professional army officers expressed grave doubts about the validity of the ceasefire agreement.
“Ten more funerals are still to come,” said one. “There is no chance that things will calm down.”
In the end, the latter viewpoint turned out to be true. Dahlan was infuriated by Mofaz’s statement, which, in his opinion, painted Dahlan as a “collaborator.” He quickly issued a public statement declaring the chief of staff a war criminal, in light of the firing of missiles at the Netzarim Junction in Gaza, and said he would refuse to meet with Mofaz.
Early Sunday morning, Avi Dichter, head of the Shin Bet security services, and Major General Yitzhak Eitan, GOC Central Command, met with Dahlan and Rajoub in Ramallah. Arafat declined to attend. The Israelis were given the impression that the Palestinians understood that the time had come to stop the shooting. But their promises again came to naught. The Israelis feel that Palestinian compliance with their requests is still minimal.
Last weekend forced a rude awakening from many illusions. The harsh statements made by the commander of the northern police district, Alik Ron, about Israeli Arabs suddenly took on a different character against the background of the blockades of the Golani Junction and Wadi Ara, roads that are intended to serve the IDF in the event of a war.
The open scorn displayed by ministers for the dangers of arming the Palestinians also appears in a different light now: If this much damage can be done with a few hundred firearms, how much damage could 40,000 rifles in the hands of the PA cause? It is also difficult to see how the trust between the security services of the two sides can be rebuilt or when Border Policemen will again agree to participate in joint Israeli-Palestinian patrols.
A new picture has emerged both in the territories and inside the pre-1967 borders and it will be some time before we are able to put all the pieces of the puzzle together.