- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 24, 2003

BEIT HANOUN, Gaza Strip — The first stop on the Middle East “road map” may lie amid Abed Raboo El Zawin’s empty fields on the northeastern frontier of the Gaza Strip.

For almost all of his life, the farmer knew this spot as the verdant orange orchard he helped his father plant as a child. But in September, Israel’s army destroyed the orchard, saying the trees Mr. El Zawin, 45, had watched over like children cloaked Palestinian militants who had fired crude missiles across the border.

Now, as Mr. El Zawin oversees the irrigation of newly planted saplings, an Israeli tank and bulldozer kick up a dust cloud on the horizon. The army has positioned forces on the outskirts of the town for the past month to get the drop on militants, but Mr. El Zawin is gambling that his field won’t again become a staging ground for a 21/2-year fight between Palestinians and Israelis.

“There is a road map, and Mr. Bush says that this road map must be implemented,” says Mr. El Zawin, referring to President Bush’s peace initiative. “The Palestinian people are very eager for peace. I hear news that there will be an agreement very soon, God willing.”

The farmer feels it could be only a matter of days before the tanks disappear from sight, because the fields of Beit Hanoun are being discussed as a test case for the initial phase of the road map, which calls for Israel to pull its army back from positions it took after the start of the Palestinian uprising.

The goal seems relatively straightforward. Restoring Palestinian security responsibility in the Gaza Strip and West Bank will enable Israel to extract its army from Arab towns and cities that have been reoccupied for more than a year. The withdrawal would also boost Palestinian confidence in the negotiations, putting public pressure on militants to end a terrorist campaign against Israeli civilians.

During a visit to Israel on Friday, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell called on Israel and the Palestinians to implement pullbacks in Gaza and the West Bank city of Bethlehem as soon as possible. But the transfer of security has been the subject of stubborn negotiations.

Israel says it is willing to start with a gradual pullback, offering Beit Hanoun and the Gaza Strip as the first region for Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas to demonstrate whether he can rein in the militants. If successful, the pullback would eventually be repeated throughout Palestinian cities in the West Bank.

Beit Hanoun presents no small challenge.

In the past year, the sleepy farming village of more than 20,000 hummed with militant activity, as nimble units of Hamas and Islamic Jihad fired Qassam rockets at the Israeli town of Sderot, three miles away.

The army’s response has been unforgiving. It has dispatched engineer units into the heart of Gaza City to dismantle iron foundries thought to produce missiles, ripped up trees and roads in Beit Hanoun, and demolished houses of residents suspected of aiding militants. But nothing has worked. Hamas continues to fire the missiles at will.

So why is Israel ready to make the Gaza Strip the test case for future pullbacks? In the Gaza Strip, unlike the West Bank, there are enough Palestinian police units intact after the 32-month pounding from Israel to do the job, says a spokesman for Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. At the same time, stopping the rocket attacks would provide a clear test of the effectiveness of the Palestinian security forces.

“This is where you have some of Hamas’ top operatives and some of its infrastructure. This is where Israel’s army hasn’t occupied the entire area,” says Uzi Arad, an antiterrorism expert who served as an adviser to former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. “It’s a very powerful test, because there the Palestinians cannot pretend not to have sufficient capability. The Palestinians know it, the Americans know it and the Israelis know it.”

But on A-Sika Street in Beit Hanoun, where a group of 10 unemployed men sip tea in the shade of a concrete building while an Israeli tank rumbles through a neighborhood a half-mile away, few believe Mr. Abbas can ever satisfy the Israelis. The notion of Palestinian forces coming in to put an end to the militant activity sounds like a joke to the men.

“The Israelis determine whether there will be peace or not,” says Mahmoud el-Shinbar, 33. “The Israelis are the only ones with the solution.”

The man waiting to move in after an Israeli pullback is Palestinian Brig. Gen. Saeb El-Ajez, whose forces are supposed to patrol the northern Gaza Strip. Seated in an air-conditioned office in Gaza City amid copies of a British military intelligence magazine, he says the task would require four to five of his brigades — about 2,000 soldiers.

Plans for Palestinian forces to take over portions of Gaza Strip were discussed last week in Ramallah with Mr. Abbas, who is also called Abu Mazen, and his security minister, Mohammed Dahlan, according to Gen. El-Ajez.

On a scrap of paper, he sketches a diagram resembling a football play, making the job look relatively easy.

First, Israel must agree to allow Palestinian forces to be armed again and lift travel restrictions on his men, Gen. El-Ajez says. Only then will Palestinian forces have the ability to arrest militants.

But he warns, if the Israeli pullback is limited to Beit Hanoun and the northern Gaza Strip, the plan is doomed. Only a withdrawal to Israel’s original positions before the uprising will convince Palestinians that Israel’s intentions are sincere.

“It’s like when you are angry and are given a piece of gum to chew. In asking to go step by step, people will become suspicious of the situation because they are afraid that Israel won’t carry [the withdrawal] out,” he says. “Things might settle for two or three weeks, but then it will go back again.”

Later in Beit Hanoun, Ashraf Al Masri navigates through bumpy back roads that have become the main byways of the village, complaining as his taxi slows to the speed of the mule carts alongside. For Mr. Al Masri, an Israeli-Palestinian pullback agreement can’t come quickly enough. The Hamas rockets have ruined his business and made life impossible the town, he says.

“I don’t care if it’s [Palestinian Security Minister] Dahlan, Abu Mazen or whoever,” he says. “I want anyone to come in here and control the situation.”

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