TEL AVIV – The renewed efforts of the Bush administration and the European Union (EU) summit, as well as the growing Israeli and international demand for a change in Israel’s policy opening the road to peace, have given rise to a ray of hope, albeit dimmed by continuing bloody events.

Vice President Richard Cheney was sent to the Middle East to try to mobilize the Arab states for the “war on terrorism,” or at least not to interfere with U.S. and British intentions toward Iraq. In this context, the excessive use of military force by Israel has become, at least temporarily, an inconvenience for the White House. Thus, General Anthony Zinni was again sent to Jerusalem and Ramallah with the aim of arranging a cease-fire.

Bush and Secretary of State Colin Powell have suddenly discovered, at least in words, that the Palestinian people also have a right to their own state, that Israel has gone too far in its inhuman atrocities. The EU summit in Barcelona censored Israel for its “excessive use of force” against the Palestinians, and said that it would be favorable if Israel would return to the pre-1967 lines, as demanded by the Security Council. Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah’s peace initiative is more or less welcomed by Washington and the EU summit. Sharon first rejected it, but since its acceptance in the international arena, he now says he might consider it.

Sharon has forfeited his demand that the Palestinians absolutely hold fire for seven days before he would be prepared to negotiate a cease-fire. Then, on the eve of Zinni’s arrival, he and his war minister Ben-Elieser ordered a pullout of the occupation forces from Ramallah, Tulkarm and Qalqiliye and the refugee camps in their vicinity, as well as other West Bank and Gaza towns and areas. (However, the 250 heavy tanks are still encircling these towns, ready to re-enter.) Sharon has also agreed to hold any air raid attacks on Palestinian cities, for now.

The intruding Israeli army did tremendous damage in the refugee camps and cities. At least 140 Palestinians were killed, among them numerous civilians, children, women and old folks. Over two thousand houses and other dwellings had their walls knocked down, or were totally destroyed during the searches for “terrorists” and weapons. During the first three weeks of March alone, 210 Palestinians and 62 Israelis have lost their lives.

Behind the partial retreat of the occupation forces, the war of attrition continues. Israeli troops intrude into various Palestinian villages and areas “to find and arrest remanded terrorists.” Resisting, armed or unarmed, Palestinians get killed and wounded. Zinni does not mind, it seems. On the other side, the Zinni effort was marred somehow by two Palestinian suicide killers.

All Palestinian leaders stress that there will be neither a cease-fire nor peace as long as Israel remains in the Palestinian territories occupied since 1967 – 22 percent of the original Palestinian homeland – and fails to respect the national rights of the Palestinians to self-determination and independent statehood. They also stress that their fight against the brutal Israeli occupation is not terrorism, but a legitimate struggle for national liberation.

Public circles close to the peace camp, and many media analysts, express much skepticism about Sharon’s alleged “change of mind.” Several articles in the Hebrew press remind us that Sharon’s latest iron-fist policy of “We shall smite the Palestinians until they will beg us for a cease-fire” was earlier expressed in the 1950s, the 1967 war, and the 1982 invasion of Lebanon. Then, Sharon himself published his war aims, namely to “transfer” all Palestinian refugees from Lebanon, Syria and the West Bank to Jordan on the East Bank of the Jordan River, to enable them to establish their state there. Several commentators maintain that these strategic aims are still behind Sharon’s policy as prime minister during the last 12 months.

Whether the dim rays of hope for a cease-fire, or even for renewed efforts to achieve just and lasting peace, will be able to change things for both Israelis and the Palestinians, remains to be seen.