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Members of the Palestinian security forces place a coffin on the ground containing the remains of one of 91 Palestinian militants transferred from Israel to the Palestinian Authority, in the West Bank city of Ramallah, Thursday, May 31, 2012. (Mohammed Ballas/Associated Press)
Members of the Palestinian security forces place a coffin on the ground containing the remains of one of 91 Palestinian militants transferred from Israel to the Palestinian Authority, in the West Bank city of Ramallah, Thursday, May 31, 2012. (Mohammed Ballas/Associated Press)

Return of bodies unlikely to push Palestinians back to negotiations Add to ...

There was a certain irony Thursday when Israel announced that members of the cast of the popular U.S. television series CSI had arrived in the country as guests of the state for a week-long tour promoting travel to Israel. The series, set in several U.S. cities, revolves around forensics used to solve crimes, especially homicides, and often involves minute examination of human bodies.

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Even as the CSI announcement was being made, Israel was in the process of delivering 91 bodies to Palestinian authorities in the West Bank and Gaza. The remains were those of individuals killed while carrying out various attacks against Israelis in the past four decades. Some perished while carrying out suicide attacks and at least one man was killed as far back as the 1970s, Israeli officials said.

The move was billed as a confidence-building measure intended to encourage Palestinian leaders to return to peace talks. For three years, the Palestinian Authority of Mahmoud Abbas has refused to return to the negotiating table until Israel ceases construction of Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank and eastern Jerusalem, territory that Palestinians expect to be part of any future Palestinian state.

The handover of the bodies, each in a simple wooden coffin, was greeted with great ceremony by the two Palestinian communities – in Ramallah, each of the 79 coffins delivered there was lined up carefully and draped in a Palestinian flag.

Just as Israel in the past has released prisoners from Lebanon in return for the remains of Israeli servicemen killed in conflict, Palestinian families welcome the closure that comes from being able to bury their loved ones.

But it’s difficult to imagine the gesture will result in a speedy resumption of the peace process. Indeed, the return of remains is thought to have been one of the conditions set by Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails when they recently ended a lengthy hunger strike, rather than a magnanimous offer by Israel. As such it probably won’t push the Palestinian leadership to drop its demand for a settlement freeze.

The absence of any substantial peace negotiations has more to do with things such as the CSI visit than with any developments between the two sides to the conflict.

A high-profile tourism promotion, in the face of growing international boycotts against performing in Israel, helps maintain the great sense of normalcy that pervades the country. There simply is no public outcry for peace by Israelis, no sense of urgency of the kind that existed when those Palestinian attackers were killed, for example.

It leaves some to conclude that it will take another Palestinian uprising or intifada to drive Israelis away from the beach and onto the public square calling for peace.

Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak said this week “Israel cannot afford stagnation” in the matter of the peace process. He argued that it may even be necessary for Israel to take unilateral action by withdrawing from a large portion of the West Bank and leaving it to the Palestinians. Few in Israel share his sense of urgency.

Mr. Barak said that a decision to take such a step would be difficult to make but that with the recent addition of the centrist Kadima party to the governing coalition of Benjamin Netanyahu, it might be the right time for such a move. The more right wing elements in the government have, until now, precluded Mr. Netanyahu from taking any bold initiatives to withdraw from any part of the West Bank. Now those elements can be outvoted.

However, the more menacing threat today against taking any such action is coming from the settlers themselves in so-called outposts and established settlements that would be evacuated in a two-state deal with Palestinians.

Settlers are digging in for battle and have demonstrated their willingness to use force to further their goals. It’s the settlers’ belief that they can outlast even this new coalition and will fight to remain in place. It’s not at all clear that the Prime Minister, seeking to keep happy as many Israelis as possible, is willing to take them on, with the scenes of inter-Israeli conflict that would follow.

Indeed, having seen the recent success of Palestinian hunger strikes, the settlers of Ulpana, a contentious neighbourhood in the West Bank settlement of Beit El that has been ordered torn down by the Israeli high court, also announced on Thursday they were launching a hunger strike of their own, to be carried out until the government legalizes their now-illegal development.

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