Feb. 1, 2005 2:29 p.m.
This is a country of great contrasts: Incredibly beautiful, but filled with sadness. Amazingly well preserved ancient historical sites, but few tourists willing to visit. Very intelligent people, but varying levels of distrust, anger, and hatred along virtually every inch of every border.
The troubles between Jews and Arabs dates back thousands of years, and while there have been periods of peace and relative calm, the past four and a half years have been particularly violent and deadly. There have been too many funerals, with fear and anxiety taking its understandable toll. Meanwhile, unemployment is high, and poverty rampant in Gaza and the West Bank, and the lack of tourism dollars has badly hurt the Israeli economy as well.
Now, though, there is hope. Things look better than they have in years, according to local media, and our own bureau staff in Jerusalem. The death of Arafat may have been a catalyst to change, and the determination of his successor could make the difference.
Remember, progress here comes in very small, very shaky steps, and one idiot armed with explosives could derail the entire process, but here are some of the positive signs:
• Israeli soldiers have pulled out of the Gaza strip, handing over security responsibilities to Palestinian police. The Palestinian Authority is now in charge of its own people, tasked with stopping terrorist activity and disarming civilians. So far, it appears to be working, with attacks down 75% in the first week. The Israelis are now negotiating with the PA to hand over security in five West Bank towns as well, including Ramallah and Bethlehem.
• The Israeli Defense Force, or IDF, has halted all "offensive" operations in Gaza, saying it will stay out of areas where the PA is now in control. They’ve also pledged to restrict operations in the West Bank to stop so-called "ticking time bombs" — imminent suicide attacks. The IDF reports the past week was the quietest in more than a year.
• A series of meetings have taken place, or are planned, between Palestinian and Israeli leaders. Here they often have meetings to plan meetings, but the tone is much improved. There is talk of opening more border crossings, and easing restrictions on imports to help boost the Palestinian economy. Perhaps most important, new PA chairman Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon plan to sit down next week, the first summit and highest-level contact between the two sides since 2003.
• Sharon is so far sticking to his plan to disband every Jewish settlement in the Gaza strip this summer. The so-called "disengagement" has met with fierce resistance from settlers, but is favored by a majority of Israelis, and seen as a key step in establishing peace in the region.
The biggest question is whether two sides with so much hate and so much pride can ever forgive and forget.
[Ed. note: Click the video tab in the upper right to watch video of Leventhal's reports.]
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