"What is there to talk about?"

That's what Ariel Sharon wondered at a meeting with the press. And after an Israeli girl's bat mitzvah party ends in bloodshed, many others are asking the same question.

Published January 20, 2002 1:15AM (EST)

A surreal debate flared up for a brief moment on Israeli Television's first channel during the live reporting on the latest Palestinian attack Thursday night.

"The police knew an attack was coming, why didn't they warn the people in Hadera?" the reporter asked the regional police commander.

"There were many warnings and we took the appropriate steps," the commander replied.

"But if the people had known, they could have posted additional guards outside the hall," the reporter shot back.

In the event, the revelers at Nina Kardashova's bat mitzvah -- the coming-of-age celebration for Jewish girls -- pummeled the Palestinian attacker with chairs and bottles. Though he shot and killed six of them, they overwhelmed him and dragged him out of the party hall by his legs. Fearing that he was wearing an explosives belt, a weapon that in the past suicide bombers have employed to deadly effect, the police shot him dead.

The three-week period of relative calm over Christmas and New Year's had already broken over the previous days. The lull in the fighting between Israelis and Palestinians was widely seen as no more than temporary -- and it was treated as such by the international community, which did nothing to capitalize on the quiet while it lasted. Now, the cycle of violence has resumed, with at least three Palestinians dead in the aftermath of Thursday's attack and very few new ideas on how to bring the crisis to an end.

Neither side -- not the boxed-in Arafat nor the hardened Sharon -- seems to have the room nor the inclination to move toward compromise on their own. If there's any hope of checking the spiral of violence, it will have to come from outside the region -- presumably, from U.S. involvement.

The shaky three-week truce that started mid-December ended more than a week ago with a deadly attack by militants from the Islamist Hamas movement on an army position inside Israel, in which four soldiers died. Although Palestinians were furious over the Israeli army's demolition of houses in the Southern Gaza strip, the inevitable Israeli response initially did not inflict Palestinian casualties. Then, on Tuesday, Palestinian militant Raed Karmi died in an explosion in Tulkarm on the West Bank, for which Israel was blamed.

Karmi was a member of Yasser Arafat's Fatah movement, whose shadowy militant wing, the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, vowed revenge. The group promptly started by killing four Israelis in the West Bank. Thursday's deadly assault, however, was the first on civilians inside Israel in more than a month. "There will be more successful attacks that will plant fear in the hearts of the Zionist enemies. Revenge is coming," the Al-Aqsa Brigades said in a statement afterward.

Ten victims, almost all civilians, seems a heavy price to exact for the death of one militia commander who openly admitted to having killed Israeli civilians.

"The current wave of attacks is not only in retaliation for the assassination of Karmi," says Palestinian political analyst Ghassan Khatib of the Jerusalem Media and Communication Center. "It is a reaction to nothing improving at all for the Palestinians even though we observed a cease-fire week after week."

Khatib and many other Palestinians blame the international community, and particularly the United States, for not forcing Israel to make concessions during the period of calm. "How can Arafat convince the people that a truce is the best way to achieve our objectives when he gets nothing in return and when the Israelis still keep him locked up in Ramallah?" asks Khatib.

The standard Israeli response is that the Palestinian Authority (P.A.) is still not doing enough to fight terror. Karmi is a case in point: He was supposed to be under arrest by the P.A. but never saw the inside of a jail. Just a few weeks ago, during the cease-fire, he walked about freely in Tulkarm. Many there knew that it was just a matter of time before the Israelis would get him -- they had tried once before and failed. Even if Karmi was not the "ticking bomb" that the Israelis say he was, they had good reason at least to demand his incarceration by the P.A.

The period of calm was also disturbed by the Palestinian Authority's apparent attempt to smuggle a massive quantity of arms into its territory in the first week of January. The Israelis intercepted the cargo aboard a freighter, the Karine A, in the Red Sea, hundreds of miles outside their territorial waters. Aboard the ship they found, among other weapons, Katyusha rockets and anti-aircraft missiles.

The Israelis say these weapons would have led to an unprecedented escalation had they fallen into Palestinian hands. It proved, according to the government, that the Palestinians were preparing for a continuation of the violence. The rest of the world did not completely share Israel's indignation, maybe because it did not come as a big surprise that, in a war, people try to acquire arms.

On these issues, though, Israel has a firm ally in the United States. "The whole world knows that the P.A. has to crack down on those elements that perpetuate violence," says a spokesman for the American embassy in Tel Aviv. He emphasizes that the only way out of the current crisis is an end to the violence, which seems to place the onus on the Palestinians.

The U.S. is eager to help the parties extract themselves from the conflict, goes the official line, but first they have to stop killing each other. "Sure, it can be a person's view that Israel should have done more to accommodate the Palestinians during the period of relative calm -- but even if you believe that, it is no justification for all the killing that we are seeing now," says the spokesman.

The Bush administration still shows signs of its original reluctance to get too deeply involved in the conflict. While Israel's new Labor Party leader and defense minister, Benjamin Ben-Eliezer, is calling for a quick return of the U.S. special envoy, Gen. Anthony Zinni, the embassy in Tel Aviv is being cautious. "Zinni has not thrown in the towel," the spokesman emphasizes, "but when he was here the first time and there was violence, people spoke of the 'Zinni escalation.'" While Zinni is still expected back in the region, the message seems to be that he may wait for quieter times.

How that quiet is going to be achieved is anybody's guess. The statements of the Israeli government don't exactly encourage the Palestinians to lay down their arms in favor of diplomacy. Prime Minister Ariel Sharon earlier this week effectively said there is virtually no chance he'll ever negotiate with the Palestinians.

"What is there to talk about?" wondered Sharon at a meeting with foreign correspondents. "Arafat rejected Barak's proposals at Camp David. What Barak offered went much further than what any other Israeli prime minister was willing to offer, and it certainly goes further than what I am willing to offer."

Publicly, the United States and Israel are still saying that they want to work toward the implementation of the Mitchell Commission recommendations of May 2001, which are supposed to lead to negotiations. The Palestinians are unconvinced. They doubt that the conditions for starting that process will ever be met, or that it will lead anywhere if it ever does start.

Security, not diplomacy, remains Israel's top priority, as Sharon himself states again and again. "I will fight for peace, but I'm not willing to compromise on the security of the Israeli people," he said this week. While many Israelis are now starting to wonder what kind of security he has brought since his election victory almost a year ago, in the current climate of violence, the public does not incline toward a softer approach. The army's deputy chief of staff, Maj. Gen. Moshe Ya'alom, probably gave voice to the current mood when he said on Thursday: "It could be that we will have to return to the territories that we withdrew from in the Oslo accords."

While most Israelis still seem to support a negotiated settlement, they also back a very tough line toward the Palestinians, commentator Chemi Shalev argued in the Israeli daily newspaper Ma'ariv. That includes support for targeted assassinations, house demolitions and incursions into Palestinian territory. "The public feels that even if the assassination of people like Raed Karmi leads to an escalation, it is still worth it," writes Shalev.

In this climate of tit-for-tat violence, it is impossible to blame just one side for provoking the other. The Palestinians, though, are convinced that the death of Karmi was a deliberate provocation on the part of the Israelis. "Karmi was a Fatah man," says political analyst Ghassan Khatib. "They did it to undermine Yasser Arafat, who leans on Fatah in his efforts to impose the cease-fire."

Certainly the position of the Palestinian leader has become even more precarious recently. His own movement is leading the upsurge in the violence, and other factions are furious with him over the arrest of a prominent militant, Ahmed Sa'adat, the leader of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. Sa'adat is wanted by Israel for his alleged role in planning the murder of Israeli cabinet minister Rehavam Ze'evi last October. The PFLP has threatened violence against the P.A. if its leader is not released.

Nonetheless, the government of Ariel Sharon continues to blame Arafat and the P.A. directly for every act of violence. "We are going to respond in a manner which will teach the Palestinian Authority a lesson they will not forget," said an Israeli government spokesman in the aftermath of the Hadera attack. The Israeli media are speculating whether Washington will now break off all high-level contacts with the P.A., as Jerusalem already did last week, although that seems like wishful thinking on Israel's part.

Despite their misgivings over the U.S. role, the Palestinians still see the Americans as "the only game in town," as analyst Ghassan Khatib characterizes it. When both sides tire again of the bloodletting, the U.S. should be there to pick up the pieces. But for now, both Israelis and Palestinians have lost all trust in talk and are reaching for their weapons again.

By Ferry Biedermann

Ferry Biedermann is a journalist based in Beirut.

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