I'll start once again with the good news. Yesterday's traditional Sukkot birkat cohanim (priestly blessing ceremony) at the Kotel (Western Wall) took place yesterday despite fears of Palestinian attacks. The event passed peacefully, in part due to stepped-up Israeli security. Today, thousands took part in Jerusalem's annual city parade. Thousands of Christian Zionist pilgrims are also in Israel now, celebrating what they refer to as the Feast of Tabernacles. This annual Christian pilgrimage is based on the verse in Zecharia read in the haftara of the first day of Sukkot, which describes the nations of the world coming to Jerusalem to celebrate Sukkot.
The situation over the past couple of days during the Sharm el-Sheikh conference has been quieter in contrast with before, but there have still been many shooting and stoning incidents. On Sunday night a Jewish family driving on the Tzur Hadassah road south-west of Jerusalem was attacked by rock throwers. This occurred within Israel's pre-1967 borders, not in the "territories." The 23 year old mother, Dvora Roseman, was seriously injured by a rock which fractured the base of her skull. She remains in serious condition in the intensive care unit at Jerusalem's Hadassah Ein Kerem hospital. "I never imagined that my family was in danger on a regular trip to Jerualem," said her husband Shlomo.
Closer to home, a young mother and her baby were seriously wounded by rocks thrown at their car near the village of Mevo Horon, east of Modi'in. I guess that's another local road we'll be avoiding at night.
President Clinton's closing statement after today's summit meeting was disappointing. Though he spoke of both sides ending violence and of returning to the situation as of before the recent fighting, the specific steps he mentioned were all obligations on Israel's part: ending the closure on the Palestinian towns and reopening the Gaza airport. There was no specific mention of obligations on the Palestinians. Nothing about prosecuting the perpetrators of Thursday's lynch in Ramallah, nothing about disarming the illegal Tanzim militias, nothing about rearresting the released Hamas terrorists, nothing about restoring the yeshiva in Joseph's Tomb or the ancient synagogue in Jericho. Furthermore, in accepting the proposed fact-finding commission, Israel has granted the UN a foothold in any future arrangements, something Israeli governments have always been scrupulous to avoid. In effect, Israel has again allowed Arafat to achieve diplomatic gains from violence, an outcome which makes future outbursts only more likely.
The first sign of the Arab response to the summit came about an hour after it closed, as dozens of shots were fired at the southern Jerusalem neighbourhood of Gilo from the nearby Palestinian-ruled town of Beit Jala. This is not the first such incident in recent days; last week Israel stationed tanks in Gilo to deter further attacks. The tanks responded to the automatic gunfire by firing their machine guns (not artillery). The authorities decided to evacuate dozens of families from their homes in Gilo to safer locations. A border policeman was shot in the heart and lungs and is now fighting for his life; one civilian was injured in the arm by gunfire at the entrance to his apartment building, and another was hospitalised for shock. The Israeli army has issued warnings to residents of Beit Jala that they should evacuate their homes, as the army intends to retaliate against the source of the gunfire in a residential area. The hope is that no innocent civilians will be hurt. So far no retaliatory action has been reported.
Both Barak and Arafat committed, according to Clinton, to make public statements calling for the cessation of violence. This would be particularly novel on Arafat's part, as he has never made such a statement to the Palestinian public to date. (Barak's office released his statement at 8:00 pm local time.) Israel Television's Arab affairs commentator Ehud Ya'ari was skeptical as to whether such a statement from Arafat would in fact come, and if so when. He noted that in 1969 Arafat signed an agreement with Lebanon known as the Cairo agreement, an agreement which he never implemented. Throughout the 1970s he would reopen negotiations with the Lebanese over implementation of the Cairo agreement, but he never actually carried it out.
Ya'ari also cast doubt on the suggestion that the Tanzim militias led by Marwan Barghouthi have been acting without Arafat's approval. Anyone who says that, he said, has to explain two phenomena: that official Palestinian Authority broadcasts, which are not under Barghouthi's authority, have continued their incitement to violence as before; and that it seems unlikely that the entire Tanzim apparatus, which is affiliated with Arafat's Fatah movement, would openly rebel against Arafat.
In any case, Barghouthi and the Tanzim have issued flyers in Gaza rejecting the Sharm ceasefire and calling for an escalation of violence tomorrow, insisting that the intifada will continue. Hamas and the Islamic movements have also rejected the ceasefire. We'll see what happens when and if Arafat issues the agreed-upon call for an end to violence.
Near Shekhem/Nablus today a Palestinian was killed and four were injured near the Jewish community of Itamar. They were shot by a Jewish resident patrolling the town. He said they were carrying hatchets and knives, and were on their way to attack Itamar. They say they were carrying knives and axes to harvest olives in their olive grove adjacent to Itamar. Either way, it could reignite fighting in the area. Israeli police detained the Itamar resident for questioning.
Overall, the mood here is, as it often is, hope mixed with skepticism. All of us hope that the ceasefire will come into effect successfully, but events so far are not encouraging.