- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 17, 2002

RAMALLAH, West Bank Israel's army is giving strong signs it plans to spend months perhaps as much as a year on the streets of Palestinian cities.

From Israel's perspective, the 3-week-old offensive has been a triumph, cutting Palestinian attacks sharply without drawing the blasts of international criticism provoked by earlier operations.

Until yesterday's killing of seven Jewish West Bank settlers in the ambush of a bus between Nablus and Qalqiliya, only one soldier and no Israeli civilians had been killed in more than three weeks, making this one of the quietest periods in Israel since the Mideast violence erupted almost two years ago. More than 30 Palestinians have been killed by the army in the same period. The victims have ranged from militants at the top of Israel's most wanted list to seven children the army says were killed by mistake.

In earlier incursions, Israeli forces tended not to linger in Palestinian areas. But then came a trio of Palestinian attacks June 18-20 that killed 31 Israeli civilians, including five children. This time, with Operation Determined Path, the army has begun an open-ended occupation of Palestinian areas in the West Bank.

The retired military chief, Lt. Gen. Shaul Mofaz, was asked if troops would stay for months. "At least," he told an Israeli newspaper .

A senior Israeli security official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, told AP the army could remain for up to a year while Israel builds a security fence on or near the border between Israel and the West Bank.

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's spokesman, Raanan Gissin, says Israel has concluded it can only prevent suicide bombings "when we are there, when we are preventing the terrorists from leaving their homes with their suicide belts, capturing them at the doorstep of their homes, not at the doorstep of the bus."

To an Israeli population battered by more than 70 suicide bombings in less than two years, such operations are highly popular, regardless of the international criticism and the burden on Israel's economy.

"Until there's a better alternative, I expect this is what we're going to see. For Israel, it's the least bad option right now," said Mark Heller, a political analyst at the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University.

As an air of semipermanence sets in, Israeli and Palestinian officials are talking about easing the restrictions, and curfews have been lifted more often in recent days, with troops pulling back from the city centers in the morning, and then returning in the afternoon.

But senior Palestinian leaders expect an indefinite Israeli army presence, claiming it's part of a larger plan by Israel's government to dismantle the Palestinian Authority and seize West Bank land the Palestinians want for a future state.

"We believe the Israeli army intends to reoccupy the Palestinian cities, and all of the West Bank, for a very long period," said Palestinian Information Minister Yasser Abed Rabbo. Mr. Sharon would like to confine Palestinians to small islands of territory "and call this a Palestinian 'provisional state,'" he added.

"This is not a state, it is just a disguised form of Israeli control and occupation," Mr. Abed Rabbo said.

The army has taken over seven of the eight main cities in the West Bank. The curfews cover about one-third of the 2.1 million Palestinians in the West Bank, and effectively immobilize many others in outlying villages who can't reach the cities to work, shop or go to school.

Ramallah is the Palestinian political headquarters in the West Bank and the launching pad for many suicide bombers who have struck in Jerusalem, just a few miles to the south so it has received close Israeli scrutiny.

But Israeli troops are also in firm control of Jenin, Nablus, Qalqiliya, Tulkarem, Bethlehem and Hebron.

The United States and Israel also have demanded that the Palestinians overhaul their leadership and security forces. But Palestinians ask how they are supposed to carry out wide-ranging restructuring when the restrictions shut all government offices before 2 p.m.

President Bush "is stressing reform, but he is completely neglecting the reoccupation, the military curfew, the siege imposed on the Palestinian people," said Mr. Abed Rabbo.

Palestinians plan January elections for a leader and a parliament, but under current conditions, candidates couldn't campaign in their hometowns, or travel to other areas.

Israel is holding about 1,800 Palestinians suspected of involvement in violence, and says virtually all senior militants in the West Bank have either been arrested or killed.

The current situation has raised comparisons to Israel's occupation of Palestinian areas before peace negotiations began in 1993 and the army began pulling out of Palestinian population centers.

Israel says it doesn't want the burden of civil administration of Palestinian areas, though it's not clear how the Palestinian government will be able function effectively if the current restrictions remain for months.

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