No Way Out

Peace Outlook From Two West Bank Towns Is Dim

When the Clinton presidential library is built, there's one piece of paper you will not find in it: a final peace agreement ending a century of conflict in the Middle East. It isn't for lack of trying.

In front of the White House the peace process is front page news, reported almost like the stock market. Some days the peace index is up; some days it's down. But the recent wave of violence has finally revealed, observes Correspondent Bob Simon, that the peace process never had a chance, that both sides are locked in a cycle of violence with no way out.

On the rocky hills of the West Bank the contradictions in the peace process are most exposed: Beit Jala, which is entirely Palestinian, and Gilo, which is entirely Israeli. They're half a mile apart, close enough for both sides to shoot at each other from the comfort of their own homes.

"We are afraid every evening, they shooting," says Dalia Sulimani, who lives in Gilo, a Jewish suburb of Jerusalem built on land Israel conquered in 1967. It used to be a great place to raise a family.

But then three months ago the war came to Gilo. When darkness falls this suburban street turns into a frontline.

Dalia Sulimani says she's frightened with the frequent shooting.

Palestinian gunmen from Beit Jala fire away with automatic weapons. The Israelis respond immediately, and their guns are bigger. At night Sulimani hides behind new steel shutters her husband installed. When the shooting starts, she watches it on TV; looking out the window is too dangerous.

"This is our land," Sulimani says, adding that she could never give Gilo back to Palestinians. "They know it."

Across the olive grove in Beit Jala the Palestinans know things with the same absolute certainty.

One of the most famous houses in Beit Jala was being built by a Palestinian living abroad. He thought the peace process would mean that building a home in his native village was a good investment. Included in the design were doves of peace. When the fighting started, Israeli gunners did a little remodeling of their own: holes from tank rounds and missiles in the walls.

"This is Beit Jala," declares the owner's young relative, Manar Rubiah. "I don't believe there is anything called Gilo."

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"I see homes. I see Beit Jala," he says. "There is no difference between this spot and that spot; it's all Beit Jala."

And about the Israelis living there, he says, "They have to go."

If it seems as if people here are living in separate realities, that's no accident. It's all part of the peace plan. Separation was the whole idea.

"The question of separation is so ridiculous," says Meron Benvenisti, the former deputy mayor of Jerusalem, who had been in charge of relations with the Arabs.

"This is not a border; this is just an enclave," he says of the abutting communities.

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"Today it is all closed and you can see that every single path, donkey's path, is closed," he adds. "And there's a soldier, so this is not separation. This is worse than separation; this is apartheid."

And as was the case in South Africa, attempts to separate are not working here.

But when the facts on the ground get too complicated, the Israelis try something else. They go underground.

For example, Israelis can drive from Gilo to other West Bank settlements on the new road - without driving through Beit Jala or seeing it - via a tunnel going under Beit Jala. Most roads are designed to bring people together but one was built precisely to keep them apart.

But even that hasn't brought safety. There have been shootings almost every day. Try as you may you simply can't separate Gilo from Beit Jala. You can't separate Israelis from Palestinians. There just isn't enough room.

Still, Israelis can drive miles down this road without seeing an Arab village or, for that matter, an Arab. But the modern road is not invisible to the Palestinians.

Manar Rubiah says the new road is only for the Israelis.

"You should ask who's allowed to drive that road," says Rubiah. "It's only for the Israelis." If he tried to take it, he'd be stopped by the army, he says. "This is a road cutting Beit Jala in two pieces. And I can't use it. It's very awful," he says.

The Israelis work hard to create the illusion of separation. In Gilo they put up little Berlin walls to keep the bullets out. The local government then pays artists to paint the landscape back in, complete with peaceful Palestinian villages. But the reality is altogether different.

Today armed Palestinians and armed Israelis are shooting it out on the land they both claim. And the passage of time has made a peaceful solution virtually impossible. Thirty-three years after the Israelis conquered and occupied these territories, there are just too many Israeli facts on the ground, too many Jewish settlements on captured Arab lands, too many neighborhoods like Gilo.

"You can't unscramble the egg," Benvenisti explains. "It is irreversible. The facts on the ground have created a new situation. It was like they were giving crumbs to the Palestinians."

Do the facts on the ground, including new Jewish settlements, make peace elusive?

"How can you return something you've never had?" he declares of Israelis giving land to Palestinians. "The peace process was doomed," Benvenisti adds. "All notion(s) that you can create a linear process moving from war to peace was wrong."

What about President Clinton's hopes of bringing peace to the Middle East? "He was wrong," Benvenisti says. "Such conflicts cannot reach a definite stage of peaceful relationships."

It's not the sort of thing you expect to hear from a leading member of Israel's peace movment. And these days you hear the same thing from Israel's hardliners.

"If you try to reach for a permanent settlement, I don't think that any Israeli prime minister can put on the table what will be acceptable or what can be accepted by Mr. Arafat and vice versa," says Moshe Arens, the defense minister who approved many of the settlements that now make a peace agreement so problematic. "Therefore you cannot reach a permanent agreement."

"This is a process that moves at a glcial pace," Arens adds.

But on the ground the pace isn't glacial. It's volcanic. Every announcement of what's called progress in the peace talks is followed by a shooting or a bomb blast.

Israelis and Palestinians are realizing that they're stuck in an impossible marriage. They can't live together. They can't live apart. So the fighting seems destined to go on and on. On these two hills despite all the devastation, everyone seems to be digging in for another 100-year war.