"Now it's really war"

With at least 24 Palestinians dead and several West Bank and Gaza cities under Israeli control, the fiercest military assault since 1994 shows no signs of abating.

Published October 22, 2001 11:38PM (EDT)

Israel was outraged Wednesday after Palestinian militants gunned down a cabinet minister in a Jerusalem hotel. Since then, it has unleashed its wrath, launching the largest military campaign against the Palestinians since the Palestinian Authority (P.A.) was established in parts of the West Bank and Gaza in 1994.

Tanks have rolled into half a dozen West Bank cities since Wednesday, surrounding or penetrating them, taking up strategic positions meant to besiege the towns and intimidate their inhabitants with heavy gunfire, killing at least two dozen Palestinians. The raids were both punitive and preventive, according to Israeli officials, who said they had no other choice but to take action against Palestinian terrorists in the wake of Wednesday's high-profile murder.

"As long as terrorism continues without arrests [by the Palestinian Authority]," Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said at a Sunday cabinet meeting, "we will make the arrests; if there are no counterterrorist actions, we will act to prevent terrorist actions."

On the ground, the raids also seemed brutal and indiscriminate, hitting Palestinian militants and one sought-after gunman, but also Palestinian policemen and more than a dozen civilians. Since Wednesday, Israeli troops have killed at least 24 people, including a 12-year old schoolgirl in Jenin and a 17-year-old altar boy on Bethlehem's Manger Square as he was exiting Nativity Church after Saturday vespers. Israeli soldiers have also been wounded, some seriously, by armed Palestinians; one has died.

By Sunday night, tanks had moved deep into Bethlehem, just a few hundred yards from the spot believed to be the birthplace of Jesus. A shopping center was aflame, and there was heavy fighting near Bethlehem's main hospital. Helicopters kept up a sinister drone overhead and Israeli troops, who took over houses and posted snipers on roofs in the Bethlehem area, were maintaining a climate of fear. "We can't go outside -- they're shooting without reason. They are so furious," said Rose Saqa, an English teacher in Beit Jala, a Christian town adjacent to Bethlehem, reached by phone. "In August, Israeli tanks came for two days and left, but now it's really war. No one knows when it will end."

The significant military escalation could mark a turning point in a conflict the American administration has tried to keep on a low flame since Sept. 11, in an effort to placate the moderate Arab states that are key allies in the U.S.-led war against terrorism.

The U.S. State Department called the incursions unhelpful on Friday, saying they complicate the situation and should be halted. Israel, however, did not seem ready to heed calls for moderation, and has seemed to respond instead to the public cries for revenge issued after the assassination of Tourism Minister Rechavam Zeevi (known by his nickname "Gandhi").

In a telling example of blood lust, Zeevi's son publicly challenged Ariel Sharon as he was standing glumly by the graveside of his ultranationalist friend and cabinet member at a packed military cemetery: "Arik [Sharon], avenge as Gandhi would have avenged your death. And go back to being the leader we once knew," he said in a public speech.

Sharon, the "leader we once knew," indeed seemed headed for a showdown with his arch-enemy Yasser Arafat. It's almost 20 years since Sharon, as defense minister in Menachem Begin's government, bombed Beirut and took troops into Lebanon in an effort to eliminate the head of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). The day after Zeevi's murder, he was quoted by Yedioth Ahronoth, an Israeli daily, as saying , "As far as I'm concerned, the era of Arafat is over."

But Sharon faces constraints on retaliation within his own government. Although there have been disagreements between government hawks and doves since Sharon took power in March, those differences reached breaking point this week, with several Labor Party ministers threatening to resign if the current wide-scale incursions turn into a creeping war and reoccupation of the West Bank.

The lack of consensus was also obvious when the government decided to send top Israeli officials to the United States on a public relations mission, but could not agree on what the contents of Israel's message should be. It will be interesting to see whether Foreign Minister Shimon Peres, the Nobel Peace Prize laureate, defends Israel's wide-scale military raids when he meets Secretary of State Colin Powell in Washington on Monday, given his extreme reticence to embrace martial goals. While Sharon has been saying that he is "through with Arafat," Peres said on Israeli television Saturday night that he believes Arafat is the only realistic partner Israel has.

"Should we topple the Palestinian Authority, there will be a blood bath in the territories," he warned. "I told Arik [Sharon]: You say there is no such thing as good terrorism and bad terrorism. That is true, but by the same token there is no such thing as good occupation and bad occupation," said Peres to Israel's Channel 2. "No one in the world will be prepared to accept the continued occupation of the territories." But he dismissed a call from a Labor Party colleague to resign from Sharon's government.

On Sunday, Sharon sought to modify the impression that he was seeking to topple the P.A. and eliminate Arafat. "Israel has no interest in remaining in places where the army has entered," Sharon said at the weekly cabinet meeting. "The amount of time the army stays in these areas depends, to a large extent, on Arafat and the actions he takes to prevent terrorism."

Mindful of the Israeli mood, Arafat quickly condemned the killing of Zeevi and offered to arrest the culprits. His men rounded up members of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, the radical organization that took responsibility for Zeevi's death, mostly in Gaza where the assailants are unlikely to be. But the Palestinian Authority refused to extradite any suspects and rejected an Israeli ultimatum issued Thursday at dawn that it do so.

"The ultimatum is an Israeli blackmail attempt, not one that seeks to find a solution to the present crisis," said Palestinian Minister of Information Yasser Abed Rabbo at a press conference the same day. "We call on the international community to intervene. We believe that Sharon's priority is to continue his war against the Palestinian people and to destroy the Palestinian Authority. We trust the world will not allow this to continue," he said. "After all this is not going to be 1982 for Mr. Sharon."

At first glance, the parallels with 1982 are striking. On June 3, 1982, an assassination attempt against Israeli ambassador to Britain Shlomo Argov as he was exiting the Dorchester Hotel provided the catalyst for an explosive reaction Sharon had been planning for months: the bombing of PLO sites in West Beirut followed by a ground invasion of Lebanon. Although the assailants belonged to the terrorist group headed by Abu Nidal, an Iraqi-sponsored enemy of the PLO, the difference between Arafat and the murderers was swept aside. (Zeev Schiff, who wrote the bestselling book "Israel's Lebanon War," quotes Rafaul Eitan, then Israel's army chief of staff, saying, "Abu Nidal, Abu Shmidal. We have to strike at the PLO!")

This week, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, a group that opposes the land-for-peace compromise signed by Arafat at Oslo in 1993, ignored the official cease-fire declared by the Palestinian Authority and lodged three bullets in the head of an Israeli minister, Zeevi, at the Hyatt Hotel. Again, the assailants were not under Arafat's orders, but Israel blamed the Palestinian leader and declared the Palestinian Authority an entity that harbors and supports terrorists. Right-wing Israelis insist that the P.A. was in the same position as the Taliban, which is guilty of nurturing and protecting Osama bin Laden, and that the P.A. should hand over the murderers of Zeevi or face Afghanistan-style strikes.

But the constraints on Sharon are far greater than they were 19 years ago. "The difference with today is the collective experience of the aftermath of 1982," said Yossi Alpher, an Israeli strategic analyst. At the time, Sharon pushed Israeli troops beyond the modest goal of ending PLO incursions into northern Israel by destroying their bases in southern Lebanon, into the deadly trap of an urban civil war. After Israel's Christian allies massacred Palestinian refugees in the camps of Sabra and Shatilla, Sharon was chastised for his costly military adventure and forced by an outraged Israeli public to resign. Even after withdrawing from Beirut, the Israeli army was bogged down in southern Lebanon for years, pulling out only in May 2000 under Prime Minister Ehud Barak.

"Sharon himself drew the conclusion that you only launch such campaigns when you have united public support behind it," said Alpher. But the prime minister may feel he has that support today, Alpher suggests. "There's a natural tendency to close ranks after a tragedy. The display of unity and solidarity [after Zeevi's death] is interesting given Zeevi's extremist views, but I wouldn't make too much of it at a strategic level."

In fact, polls released since Zeevi's murder show a public united behind Sharon, but divided and confused about the policy the government should pursue. In a Gallup poll published by the Israeli daily Maariv on Sunday, 38 percent of respondents said Israel should declare war on the P.A., while an equal number said Israel should accelerate peace efforts. The rift in public opinion applies also to whether Arafat should be viewed as an enemy (60 percent) and whether a Palestinian state should be established alongside Israel (61 percent support the idea). Only 22 percent, however, said they favor recapturing Palestinian-controlled territory if negotiations fail. "Israelis do not want to lose the hope in an agreement with the Palestinians and also do not want to lose hope in victory over terrorism," wrote Sever Plotzer in Yedioth Ahronoth.

"The Israeli public does support a 'strong hand' but up to point: It is doubtful whether public opinion is prepared for the casualties of an all-out war against the P.A. or for the diplomatic and economic blow that would result from a head-on confrontation with America and its partners," wrote Hemi Shalev, commenting on the poll results in Maariv.

Israel's flagging peace movement has been somewhat energized by the latest escalation. Peace Now rallied Saturday night in Jerusalem under the slogan "Stop the War."

"The government of Israel is cynically exploiting the assassination of Tourism Minister Zeevi in order to drag into an all-out military confrontation with the Palestinian Authority and the Palestinian people," said Moria Shlomot, director of Peace Now. "There is no consensus in the Israeli public for such a war, and we protest the attempt to foist upon us the agenda of an extremist minority." Yossi Sarid, the head of the left-wing Meretz opposition party, warned Friday that toppling Arafat, a relatively moderate secular leader, would backfire and could bring a Palestinian bin Laden to power instead.

But for now, Sharon's popularity remains high, and safely above that of his right-wing rival, the hawkish former Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu. Flanked by his dovish Foreign Minister Peres, Sharon has acceded to Western demands in the past and adopted, until now, a policy of relative military restraint. At the same time, Sharon retains a well-worn tough guy's image and is capable of striking defiant poses, taking on Washington, for example, a few weeks ago in a speech in which he accused the United States of wanting to appease Arab states at Israel's expense, or declaring an "all-out war" against the Palestinians after Zeevi's murder.

For his part, Arafat clearly feels the heat. He has repeatedly pledged his commitment to the tenuous cease-fire declared at the end of September and said that armed groups that violate the truce would be outlawed. But the stranglehold imposed by Israeli troops on West Bank cities, and the outrage caused by the deaths of Palestinian civilians, make it near-impossible for him to act decisively against militants wanted by Israel and certainly incapable of stopping Palestinians from taking pot shots at Israeli tanks stationed in their midst. On the streets of the West Bank, Arafat's words and the policy dilemmas faced by the Sharon government are largely irrelevant as violence follows its own implacable logic.

For instance, when a booby-trapped 4x4 Mitsubishi exploded Thursday, killing Atef Abayat, a Palestinian militant on the top of Israel's most-wanted list, and two of his companions, it set a new vicious circle going, one that is only marginally connected to the war between Sharon and Arafat. After the Israeli-engineered explosion, members of the Abayat clan who live in the Bethlehem area opened fire on Gilo, a Jewish neighborhood just south of Jerusalem built on land seized in the 1967 Mideast War. Israeli tanks then moved in, faithful to a pledge made in August -- when Israeli tanks left the area after a two-day incursion -- that they would return if Gilo was attacked.

As a result, an area that had been quiet since August turned into a dangerous war zone Friday and Saturday, in which masked Palestinian militants aimed their rifles at Israeli tanks and innocent bystanders were shot dead on their roofs, in their homes and on the ghost town's sidewalks by Israeli soldiers.

On Saturday alone, a 23-year-old woman was killed in Bethlehem when her car came under Israeli fire. A mother of eight was killed in a refugee camp across from Bethlehem's luxurious Intercontinental Hotel, taken over by Israeli soldiers. A 17-year-old was shot after attending mass at the Church of the Nativity by an Israeli sniper a half-mile away. And Yusef Abayat, a relative of the dead gunman Ataf, was shot dead, allegedly after trying to stab an Israeli soldier. The sound of more shooting accompanied their funerals on Sunday, when four more Palestinians were killed in disparate and sometimes seemingly random battles: a resident and a police officer in Bethlehem, a man in nearby Beit Jala and a Palestinian woman outside Jenin in the northern West Bank.

"It's not clear yet if this is a turning point," said Alpher, the analyst, referring to Israel's recent raids. The constraints on Israeli policy remain the same: American pressure to cool things down; the desire not to escalate the conflict into a regional war with Iraq, Egypt or Syria; and the fact that Israel does not want to reoccupy all Palestinian territory and have 3.2 million hostile Palestinians on its hands. Still, the lack of vision and strategy on the part of Arafat and Sharon has cost more than 800 lives over the past year, and there's no reason to expect the killing will stop anytime soon.

By Flore de Preneuf

Flore de Preneuf is a Jerusalem writer and photographer.

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