Brinkmanship of blood

Pushed to the edge by rage and revenge, Palestinians and Israelis stare into the abyss of war.

Published June 6, 2001 8:00AM (EDT)

It was the most deadly suicide bombing in five years -- right in the heart of civilian Israel. After a Palestinian suicide bomber blew himself up and killed 20 young revelers waiting at the doorstep of a Tel Aviv nightclub last Friday, Palestinian operatives and security officials went into hiding, bracing for a massive Israeli reprisal air raid. At the same time, terrified Israelis deserted public spaces and waited nervously for the next bomb in an extensive terror campaign promised by Palestinian terrorist organizations.

Days later, the two sides are still holding their breath, expecting a tentative truce between them to founder at any moment. Although the number of violent incidents has gone down since Friday's carnage, neither the cease-fire announced by Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat on Saturday under intense international pressure nor Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's policy of "restraint" seems capable of stopping the bloodshed for very long.

There is a faint glimmer of hope: a U.S.-led plan to stop the violence, cool off tempers and implement confidence-building measures, such as stopping construction of Jewish settlements in the occupied territories. A commission headed by former U.S. Sen. George Mitchell drafted the plan. But Israelis and Palestinians disagree over key points in the Mitchell initiative. And the mood in the street and in security headquarters at the moment points less toward reconciliation than escalation.

According to Israeli commentators, any plans will turn to smoke if seemingly imminent strikes by Palestinian terrorist organizations such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad take place. "One more large-scale attack by them and this entire temporary cease-fire, the entire diplomatic effort, all of the work being done by the emissaries and the 'baby-sitters' will go down the drain," commented Alex Fishman in the Israeli daily Yedioth Ahronoth.

Public sentiment isn't hopeful. A survey by the Palestinian Center for Public Opinion revealed that three-quarters of Palestinian respondents support "military operations similar to that of Netanya of May 18, 2001," when a Palestinian suicide bomber killed five Israelis at a shopping mall entrance. In other words, a majority supports terrorism. For their part, 64 percent of Israelis polled declared they were in a "bad mood" in a survey published by Yedioth Ahronoth last Friday before the disco bombing; only 5 percent said they thought that the violence would end within a month, while 51 percent thought it would drag on for "a number of years."

Recent polls have also showed that a majority of Israelis and Palestinians do not believe in cease-fires and would rather see their leaderships lead them into battle to deal the enemy a strong and hypothetically final blow.

There is bad blood in the Holy Land, and plenty of people willing to wash it with their own. About 600 people have died since relative peace between Palestinians and Israelis disintegrated last September. Rocks, bullets, missiles and bombs have injured hundreds of Israelis and tens of thousands of Palestinians.

The conflict, which started with Palestinian rioting and a brutal Israeli crackdown after Sharon made a controversial visit to a Jerusalem shrine, looks less and less like a traditional "intifada," the Arabic word for "popular uprising," and more like guerrilla warfare, or a hybrid type of war for which experts have yet to come up with a name.

Naming the situation, in fact, is an integral part of the conflict, as Palestinians and Israelis argue over the purpose of the current violence and who is to blame for the rising toll.

Though Palestinians continue to use the word intifada, the current situation bears little resemblance to the first Intifada that rocked the West Bank and Gaza between 1987 and 1993. In that conflict, televised images of Palestinian stone throwers pitched against Israeli soldiers were thrust into living rooms around the world.

The first intifada was by and large a grass-roots movement of demonstrations and civil disobedience against the Israeli occupying authorities and army. The first weeks of rioting and rock throwing last fall did resemble a popular uprising in some ways, as people took the streets to protest the killing of Palestinian protesters by Israeli police. But the focus of the current violence is really to "inflict pain and suffering on Israelis whether at the level of soldiers or civilians," says Khalil Shikaki, a Palestinian analyst who heads the Palestinian Center for Policy, Survey and Research in Ramallah.

The word "intifada" effectively gives the fighting an important dimension of legitimacy. It may also be popular with Palestinians for lack of a better word. Although Palestinians have endured raids from Israeli helicopter gunships and F-16 fighter jets in the recent months, they are still reluctant to use the word "war."

"It takes two armies to have a war," says Ghassan Khatib, a Palestinian analyst in Jerusalem, "and in our opinion there is only one army." In retaliation for the Netanya attack May 18, Israel deployed F-16s and dropped six bombs on targets in Gaza and the West Bank cities of Ramallah and Nablus, killing 12 people. "Normally if you use F-16s, you expect the other side to use antiaircraft weaponry," says Khatib. It is uncertain whether Palestinians possess such weaponry, but if they do, they didn't use it.

The official Palestinian line puts the past eight months' violence in the context of Israel's occupation of the West Bank and Gaza and the failure to end that occupation through diplomatic means. "What you have here is the classic dynamic between occupier and occupied," says Khatib. "The occupier wants to continue occupation while the occupied resists it. Palestinians are not fighting an existential war. They are strictly fighting an independence war, a decolonization war. They don't want anything less or anything more than to end the occupation."

Since the beginning of the 1990s, Palestinian diplomacy has focused on gaining full control of the West Bank and Gaza, captured and occupied by Israel in the 1967 Six Day War. At Camp David last summer Ehud Barak, then Israel's prime minister, allegedly offered the Palestinians something very close to the end of occupation, but the offer was turned down as insufficient by Arafat. That rejection and the subsequent violence -- including major terror attacks within Israel like last Friday's deadly blast -- have convinced many Israelis that Palestinians actually want to regain the entirety of historical Palestine, not just the occupied territories.

For many Israelis, therefore, the conflict is existential: Palestinian terror threatens the country they built in 1948; Palestinians want to eradicate Israel; this is a war for the survival of a small Jewish state in a hostile Arab world.

This viewpoint is shared nowadays even by former Israeli "doves" who thought the occupation immoral and professed their readiness to surrender the West Bank and Gaza in exchange for peace. "There is a growing feeling in Israel that the fighting has been forced on us due to Palestinian rejectionism, their withdrawal from compromise and their violence," said Sever Plotzker in Yedioth Ahronoth recently. "Their Intifada is perceived as a new kind of no-choice war for us; the most important test for practical Zionism since the Yom Kippur War [of 1973]. A test in which the option of losing does not exist."

On the ground, the conflict feels like a strange war of attrition -- a cross between guerrilla and tribal warfare using conventional weapons, terror and international public opinion.

On the Palestinian side, the hope is that a multitude of attacks within the occupied territories and within Israel itself will weaken Israeli resolve and will eventually lead to the Israeli army's full withdrawal from the West Bank and Gaza -- just as it pulled out of Southern Lebanon last May under pressure from Syrian-backed Hezbollah guerrilla fighters. Polls last summer indicated wide support among Palestinians for a Hezbollah-like scenario even before the failure of diplomatic talks at Camp David. Many people thought that if a few hundred well-trained Syrian-backed guerrillas could force Israelis out with roadside bombs and Katyusha rockets, thousands of Palestinians could do the same.

This perception helps explain Palestinian support for shootings and bombings despite the high cost the violence has exacted on their people in deaths, injuries and economic sanctions. "A majority believe that a combination of negotiations and armed conflict will be more effective than negotiations alone," said Shikaki, the Palestinian analyst.

So far, that has not been the case. On the contrary, violence by Palestinians has eliminated a well of sympathy in their favor among the Israeli left and to some extent among European leaders. It has also reinforced the fears of right-wingers in Israel, and made it politically suicidal for future Israeli governments to offer fresh compromises.

In fact, the situation in the West Bank and Gaza has little in common with the protracted war in Southern Lebanon. In the past months, there have been Palestinian activities like roadside bombs and ambushes that resemble guerrilla warfare. But "it's an incorrect comparison," says Yossi Alpher, an Israeli strategic analyst. Palestinians have misjudged Israel's readiness to use deterrence force: Lebanon was Lebanon, a land that Israel never had any claims to, while this is "more existential," says Alpher. From the Israeli point of view, there are 200,000 Israeli settlers and an ancient Jewish heritage to protect in the occupied territories, as well as vulnerable civilians in sovereign Israel crying out for increased security.

In the wake of the past week's bombs and shootings, right-wing Israelis begged Sharon to lift the present conflict's ambiguity and simply go to war. Sharon was the general who bogged down the Israeli army in the Lebanon conflict in 1982, but he is also seen as the hero of many wars throughout Israel's existence.

After a shooting attack on a settler in the northern West Bank May 29, Sharon made a condolence call to the mourners that was videotaped and aired on national television. One of the mourners appealed to Sharon: "How many, how many bodies? We can't wait for the right timing at the expense of our blood. Arik, how many more bodies can you bear on your shoulders ... If it were your son or your grandson, you would have long since bombed Gaza." Sharon told the settlers that his blood was "also boiling" but that he had to show restraint because of the complexity of the campaign.

Sharon's position now underscores the nation's uneasiness with its own military power. Although Israel is capable of reconquering areas of the West Bank and Gaza that have been partially transferred to the Palestinian Authority within the Oslo peace process, it has no desire to rule again over the 3.1 million Palestinians who live there. When pressed, most Israelis admit there is no military solution to the Palestinian problem. But the thirst for revenge and the lack of political options at the moment could be stronger than rational thinking.

The language of blood and the lure of revenge also permeate Palestinian thinking these days. By inflicting huge casualties and imposing suffocating restrictions on the movement of Palestinian goods and people, Israel has created "a spirit of revenge and hatred among Palestinian people," says Khatib. "It has created the feeling among many Palestinians that to deter Israel from killing our civilians, they must carry the battle behind the lines of the enemy and strike Israeli civilians: If you want us to stop, you have to stop."

This blood feud between Jewish and Palestinian tribes over a piece of land, almost quaint in its biblical undertones, could easily degenerate into one of the 21st century's first regional wars.

There are plenty of worst-case scenarios. Excessive Israeli retaliation after the next terror attack, for example, could trigger regional outcry. A northern front could open on the Lebanese border, with Syria's and Iran's connivance; or Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein could get the irresistible urge to launch a few Scuds in Israel's direction. "But after eight months of conflict, there is a certain stability to it," Shikaki says. "It can escalate a little bit here or a little bit there without necessarily exploding in anyone's face."

The lack of American interest in mediating and resolving the conflict since President Bush took office is another reason for pessimism. The Mitchell initiative was the product of last October's U.S.-led Sharm al-Sheikh summit, and thus a leftover from the days of President Clinton. The plan has no chance of succeeding, in Palestinian analysts' view, without a U.S. administration pushing for a freeze on Israeli settlement building. "The U.S. doesn't want to pressure Israel on this issue and won't antagonize the Congress over the Middle East," says Khatib. Other observers think it may be smart of the Bush administration not to put its prestige on the line the way Clinton did in trying to end a conflict that, for the time being at least, may be irresolvable.

Still, what the U.S. president says matters. Bush's strong attack on terrorism last Friday was a rebuke to Arafat and forced the Palestinian leader to adopt a more conciliatory tone over the weekend. Likewise, the international outcry that followed the deployment of Israeli fighter bombers last month led Sharon to declare a "unilateral cease-fire" to regain some moral ground in the court of world public opinion.

The importance both Arafat and Sharon give international opinion keeps the tribal conflict within bounds, as does a certain culture of dialogue and compromise that has developed among Palestinians and Israelis since the beginning of the Oslo peace process in 1993. "The fact is we came pretty close to reaching an acceptable compromise in the second half of 2000," notes Alpher, the Israeli analyst. "We're not yet in a Balkan situation. But if 50 more years of fighting go by, maybe we'll be there."

By Flore de Preneuf

Flore de Preneuf is a Jerusalem writer and photographer.

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