Middle East meets Wild West

With the crisis simmering and the death toll mounting in Israel, vigilante movements are brewing among Israelis and Palestinians alike.

Published November 27, 2000 10:05PM (EST)

Twice a week since the beginning of the current Palestinian uprising, Shifra Hoffman, a grandmother in her 60s, has practiced firing her pistol at Combat, a shooting range in Jerusalem.

Wearing dangling Star of David earrings under a traditional Jewish headscarf, Hoffman seems frustrated on the range today. "I have a quarrel with my own government. It was put in power to protect and safeguard the people," Hoffman says. Instead, "the politicians have stripped the army and tied its hands. What kind of government allows its citizens to be blown up in buses, stabbed and stoned, while continuing to talk about peace?"

So Hoffman, an admirer of the late right-wing extremist Rabbi Meir Kahane -- known for his aggressive anti-Arab stances -- has decided to take the protection of fellow Jews into her own hands. The founder of an organization called Victims of Arab Terror, Hoffman now regularly leads small groups to Combat to train in marksmanship.

Business at Combat has doubled since Palestinian violence erupted in the occupied territories two months ago, as Israeli settlers and concerned citizens have come to purchase high-caliber weapons and refresh their shooting skills. Likewise, the Interior Ministry's Weapon Licensing Department has reported a 50 percent increase in the number of applications during the recent weeks of violence.

Israel is in many ways a nation of arms. In a country of 6 million, there are about 280,000 privately owned guns. In addition, most men under the age of 40 carry a weapon at all times during their one-month annual reserve duty. In the most recent clashes, Palestinians have repeatedly reported killings by trigger-happy settlers, in drive-by incidents and shoot-outs in olive groves, but few independent inquiries have confirmed the circumstances of those deaths.

More than a burgeoning vigilante movement, however, the newfound popularity of pistols reflects a growing sense of impotence and frustration with government policy toward the Palestinians.

"We feel very vulnerable. We have no recourse," says Hoffman. "There will be shooting, we predict, in all neighborhoods." Steve Averbach, Combat's muscular and mustachioed shooting instructor, concurs: "We're all moving targets."

The Palestinian riots started on Sept. 29, a day after the controversial visit of right-wing leader Ariel Sharon to Temple Mount, a Jerusalem shrine held holy by both Muslims and Jews. They first pitted throngs of Palestinian stone-throwers against well-armed Israeli soldiers, but two months into the violence, the clashes have moved toward guerrilla-style warfare, involving bombs, ambushes and greater firepower on both sides. Roughly 280 people have been killed so far, including 33 Israeli Jews.

Wednesday, the day a remote-controlled car bomb blasted through the side of a bus during rush hour, killing two Israeli civilians north of Tel Aviv, about 100,000 people rallied in Jerusalem under the slogan "Let the Israeli Defense Forces win!" That sentiment is shared by many, but also puts the government in a difficult position.

For weeks now Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak has been casting about for ways to end the violence, without success. His policy of "restraint" has earned him the scorn of the right and a sharp popularity drop in national polls. At the same time, harsh retaliation to attacks -- like last week's bombardment of the Gaza Strip -- has proven militarily ineffective and even counterproductive.

The dilemma is manifold. Consider just last week's events. On Monday, a roadside bomb hit an Israeli schoolbus carrying the children of settlers in the Gaza Strip, killing two adults and maiming several children. That evening, Israel responded with a massive barrage of rockets on Gaza City fired from helicopters and gunboats. The three-hour bombardment terrorized the city, killed one person and injured dozens, but had no visible deterrent effect.

Indeed, Palestinian snipers shot and killed an Israeli settler in Gaza the very next day, and the rest of the week brought about the deaths of four Israeli soldiers and two Israeli civilians. In addition, Hezbollah, the Islamic guerrillas, detonated a roadside bomb in a contested area near the Lebanese border, killing an Israeli-Arab soldier Sunday. With the kidnapping of three soldiers in early October, it was Hezbollah's second major provocative action along the northern border since Israel withdrew its troops from Southern Lebanon in May -- and it represented a new blow to Israel's deterrence power. Twenty-eight Palestinians were killed that week alone.

Rather than stopping Palestinian snipers and terrorists in their tracks, the Israeli tanks and missiles seem only to fan the flames of rage and revenge. Even worse, Israel's international standing is damaged by the show of massive force.

On Oct. 7, near the beginning of the current clash, the United Nations' Security Council passed a resolution lambasting Israel for its violence against the Palestinians, and dozens of non-governmental organizations have since slammed Israel for its heavy-handed anti-rioting techniques.

Physicians for Human Rights, a well-respected independent organization, sent a team of American forensic experts to Israel in October and concluded that "the Israel Defense Force (IDF) has used live ammunition and rubber bullets excessively and inappropriately to control demonstrators, and that based on the high number of documented injuries to the head and thighs, soldiers appear to be shooting to inflict harm, rather than solely in self-defense." The Israeli army systematically refers to its use of guns as restrained and aimed at self-defense. The army has rejected blame even in the case of the televised killing of 12-year-old Mohammad al-Dirrah, who cowered helplessly behind his father during a gun battle in Gaza, claiming that Palestinian gunmen were most likely responsible for the death.

More devastating to Israeli diplomacy was the decision following last week's bombardment by Egypt to recall its ambassador. A longtime ally of Israel, Egypt only recalled its ambassador on one other occasion during 20 years of Israeli-Egyptian diplomacy -- when Israel invaded Lebanon in 1982. Jordan, Israel's other closest Arab ally, announced it would delay sending its new envoy to Tel Aviv. And the United States condemned Israel for using excessive force.

In response to the criticism and the failure of Israel's retaliation policy, Barak's cabinet decided Thursday to change the focus of the strikes from massive bombardments to highly targeted operations against those responsible for the violence. Deputy Defense Minister Ephraim Sneh said the goal of these operations would be to prevent attacks or "punish terrorists for attacks they carried out, while causing us the least possible diplomatic damage." In practice, this policy means fewer aerial raids and more assassinations.

A mid-ranking Palestinian militiaman, who was linked to shootings on the Israeli settlement of Gilo, was killed near Bethlehem three weeks ago by a helicopter missile. (The bomb also killed two Palestinian women on the sidewalk.) Last week, the Israelis wiped out a bomb-making terrorist who belonged to Hamas, the militant Islamic group, four members of the Tanzim militia, which belongs to Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's party, and five Palestinians whom the Israeli army identified as terrorists after they were killed in an ambush on Sunday night.

To the Palestinians who continue to suffer the brunt of the clashes' casualties, live under tight military siege and sleep in fear of hovering helicopter gunships, the idea that Israel and "restraint" are even uttered in the same sentence seems surreal.

"Remember the whole thing started with Israeli violence," says Ghassan Khatib, the head of a Palestinian think tank in Jerusalem. "On Sept. 29, when Palestinians protested Sharon's visit to the Haram al-Sharif, the Israelis killed seven Palestinians. That initiated violence. On the second day, 13 were killed. And so on. So it's funny to talk about restraint. Of course Israel is a powerful country and can show much more force," he concedes.

But many Israelis feel the military strikes on Gaza and West Bank towns have not been harsh enough. They point to the fact that the strikes occur at night, usually after warnings from Israel to evacuate the targeted areas and produce mostly symbolic property damage. "There have been very few casualties -- even in the so-called mass bombing in Gaza," argues Gerald Steinberg, a specialist in security issues at the Begin-Sadat Center at Israel's Bar-Ilan University. "There have been specific attacks on individuals associated with terrorism. But all in all, compared to NATO's policy in Kosovo, for example, it has been a very limited response. That is why you see calls to increase the level of response."

Hypothetically, Israel could respond to attacks with greater force. It could pummel Palestinian towns more intensively, seal off more effectively the Palestinian territories and cut off all fuel, water and electricity to those areas. "But very little can be done without risking escalation," notes Steinberg. "Escalation could mean greater terrorism inside Israel but also the intervention of other countries and the beginning of a regional war. Israel is showing restraint to avoid that scenario," he says.

Since Palestinian snipers and bomb makers take cover in Palestinian-controlled areas, some Israelis suggest reinvading the territory turned over to Arafat in the course of the Oslo peace process. But that would be "a very undesirable option," according to Steinberg. "It turns the clock backwards. Israeli soldiers become easy targets and the rate of casualties increases." The consensus these days, he says, is to "increase separation, reduce areas of friction and not to get more involved."

Ironically, part of Israel's difficulty in dealing with the Palestinians stems from the promise of peace. Despite having called for a "timeout" in the peace process, Barak is still eager to leave the door open for U.S.-brokered deals and bilateral negotiations.

And part of the difficulty comes from the strange nature of this war. Indeed, the clashes represent an awkward cross between a popular uprising -- in which Palestinian teenagers man the barricades and die heroically in front of world cameras -- and more professional guerrilla and terrorist attacks. Like Barak, Arafat is under pressure to increase the intensity of the conflict.

Analysts say Arafat does not have the power to squelch radical expressions of Palestinian discontent. He is counting instead on sympathetic international intervention to put an end to the bloodshed and deliver diplomatic gains. For this, the Palestinians must appear to be the victims as much as the perpetrators of the current violence. Despite popular calls for revenge and decisive action against Israel, the Palestinian leader has resisted deploying the 40,000 police and security men under his authority. Instead, he leaves the fighting to civilians, militia groups and terrorist cells -- falling far short of an all-out war.

But, according to some Israeli and independent reports, Palestinian security men, frustrated by Arafat's policy, frequently strip their uniforms and join the battles after hours, which mirrors the thirst for "real action" on the Israeli side.

"Most people wish it were a war by now, " says Averbach, the shooting range instructor. "Wars end quickly."

By Flore de Prineuf

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