Israel, Palestinians hope to avoid clashes
Jerusalem - Israeli and Palestinian security forces are already taking precautions to avoid an outbreak of violence after an expected UN vote for Palestinian independence in September, officials on both sides say, reflecting shared concerns about the possibility of renewed fighting this fall.
For now, Israeli and Palestinian officials said they do not want - or expect - armed hostilities to resume. But both sides fear that one small incident could quickly spin out of control.
"We need only popular and peaceful struggle," Amin Makboul, a top official in Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas' Fatah Party, said on Sunday. "We want to show the world that we are responsible and deserve to be part of the international community."
After the bitter lessons of last decade's Palestinian uprising, the Palestinians do not want to give Israel any "pretext" to claim the Palestinians are not serious about creating a peaceful state, Makboul added.
A top Palestinian security official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Abbas recently issued a straightforward order to his commanders: "I don't want any violent actions in September," the official quoted Abbas as saying. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was discussing a sensitive internal meeting.
Israeli and Palestinian officials both say the region is headed into uncharted waters if the Palestinians follow through on their pledge to turn to the United Nations.
Each side is trying to prepare for all scenarios. Mostly it is in closed forums whose deliberations are so tightly guarded as to suggest a fear that the mere mention of a new Palestinian uprising might somehow contribute to tensions. However, some preparations are more public.
About 1 000 Israeli military officers held a two-day drill last week to prepare for September, discussing such issues as crowd-control tactics and the latest intelligence, officials say.
The army will use the coming months to fine-tune its preparations in hopes of avoiding bloodshed, they said.
Abbas has said he will seek an international endorsement of Palestinian independence if peace talks with Israel remain stalled, as they have been for nearly three years. The US has stepped up efforts to find a formula for renewing negotiations in recent weeks, but there have been no signs of a breakthrough.
The Palestinians say they will not resume talks until Israel freezes all construction in Jewish settlements in the West Bank and east Jerusalem - areas captured in 1967 which they claim for a future state.
A senior Palestinian official has hinted the Palestinians will ease this demand if Israel accepts President Barack Obama's formula of basing a future Palestinian state on Israel's pre-1967 frontiers, with agreed land swaps. Setting the rough outlines of a future border at the outset, the thinking goes, would largely solve the settlement issue on its own - since Israel would know which of the communities it will ultimately be able to keep.
Pressure on Israel
Israel has reacted coolly to Obama's plan, saying that all issues, including settlements and final borders, should be reached in negotiations.
The effect of the UN vote will likely be limited in the short term.
With the US threatening to use its veto power in the Security Council, the powerful UN body that must approve membership in the world body, the Palestinians instead plan to turn to the General Assembly.
Although the assembly's decisions are nonbinding, the Palestinians are calculating that a resounding victory there would send a strong international message and put heavy pressure on Israel to begin withdrawing from occupied territories.
Israeli military officials believe the Palestinians have no desire to stage another uprising; more than 5 000 Palestinians and more than 1 000 Israelis were killed in the previous one.
It is a view shared by many observers of the Palestinian scene, who note that in recent years the fighting has largely subsided, and the West Bank has enjoyed an economic boom.
Still, the last Palestinian uprising broke out during another period of relative prosperity, in late 2000 - and it initially enjoyed wide support among a public that felt disappointed by the results of peace efforts.
Some Israelis fear that this fall, the UN vote could similarly fuel unrealistic expectations among the Palestinian public. Officials fear a single incident with Palestinian fatalities could spark a wider outbreak of violence. They spoke on condition of anonymity because they were discussing a sensitive security assessment.
While the Israeli military does not believe the Palestinian leadership in the West Bank is looking for a battle, the rise in Facebook-organised groups is adding some uncertainty to the equation. Palestinian activists in Syria, for instance, recently organised demonstrations along the frontier with Israel that resulted in more the deaths of more than 20 protesters.
Facebook use is widespread in the Palestinian territories, especially among the younger generation.
The Israeli military officials said they will limit the use of lethal force as much as possible and will try to prevent violent confrontations by using intelligence capabilities.
Different protest ideas have been floated, including mass marches on Jewish settlements, though some of that has come from analysts and commentators, not from Palestinian activists. The Israeli military officials say such marches would require extensive planning and could be thwarted ahead of time, if deemed a threat.
A Palestinian security official said orders would be for marches to be peaceful, and that tactics like stone-throwing would not be tolerated. He also said rallies would be confined to Palestinian population centres and not be permitted to get too close to Israeli settlements.
The official concurred that unofficial groups could stir up violence, particularly if they try to enter areas off limits to Palestinians, like the main checkpoint linking the West Bank to Jerusalem. He said such scenarios would be "out of our control", since Palestinian security forces are barred from operating there.
"If Palestinian demonstrators are killed, the situation could deteriorate," he warned.