News Analysis — Territorial ebb, flow: from clashes to calm

JERUSALEM — Quiet broke out on the streets of Hebron early this week, raising the question: What accounts for the ebb and flow of recent violence in the territories?

There is a detectable pattern to events in the Gaza Strip and West Bank, where clashes between Israelis and Palestinians during the past several weeks have evoked images of the worst days of the pre-Oslo Palestinian uprising.

Those clashes, in turn, have given way to periods of relative calm.

Whether violence or calm prevails appears to be a direct result of two key factors: the level of cooperation between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, and the level of daily contact between Jews and Arabs in the self-rule areas.

Weeks of rioting in Hebron came to a sudden end Monday, when 200 Palestinian police were deployed for the first time in two weeks along the area dividing the Palestinian- and Israeli-controlled parts of the city.

The move followed talks Sunday night between Palestinian security officials and the commander of Israeli forces in Hebron.

In return for the Palestinian pledge to try to maintain calm, Israel allowed the Palestinian shops located in areas that had been flash points for violence in recent days to reopen.

It is no coincidence that Hebron — the only West Bank town where Palestinians and Jews live side by side — has been the scene of the worst violence since Israeli-Palestinian negotiations came to a halt in mid-March.

Near-daily riots erupted there after fliers depicting the prophet Mohammed as a pig appeared in the town.

A Jerusalem woman has been detained on suspicion of distributing the fliers.

Over the weekend, demonstrators threw bombs and rocks at the Israeli troops, who responded with rubber bullets and tear gas. At least 19 Palestinians were wounded, including Palestinian journalists covering the protests.

Saturday's clashes reportedly broke out after a group of Jewish settlers, returning from Sabbath prayers, threw stones at Palestinian youth.

Violence also has erupted recently in Nablus, where the Israeli army protects groups of yeshiva students who go there to pray and study at the Tomb of Joseph.

Rachel's Tomb, another holy site that attracts Jewish worshippers to Bethlehem, has also become a place of confrontations and violence.

In contrast, there have been no reported instances of violence in such West Bank towns as Jenin, Tulkarm and Kalkilya, where there is no Jewish presence.

The decreased tensions in Hebron — and Gaza — followed another important development: the first high-level meeting between Israeli and Palestinian negotiators in months.

The negotiations have been stalled since March, when Israel began construction of a new neighborhood in southeastern Jerusalem.

The Palestinians viewed the move as pre-empting final-status talks on Jerusalem, whose eastern half they claim as the capital of a future Palestinian state.

At the meeting last week, officials discussed the opening of a Palestinian airport in Gaza and the creation of a safe passage route for Palestinians traveling between the West Bank and Gaza.

The head of the Palestinian Civil Aviation Authority said Monday that negotiators had agreed on landing and takeoff procedures at the airport as well as a name: the Gaza International Airport.

While security procedures at the airport still have to be worked out, progress was also reported in the discussions regarding the safe passage route and the opening of a seaport in Gaza.

All three topics are unresolved issues from the Interim Agreement that Israel and the Palestinian Authority signed in Washington in September 1995.

Progress on these issues may well have prompted Palestinian Authority leader Yasser Arafat to seek a calming of the situation.