TEL AVIV — As preparations for the August withdrawal from Gaza accelerated over the past week, Israel got a series of grim reminders that any hope of disengagement resulting in a reduction in terrorism might be just wishful thinking.
Palestinian attacks, which declined drastically following a cease-fire agreement in February, began rising perceptibly in May and then spiked dramatically in June, with four Israelis shot to death in one six-day period last week. Several more attacks, including suicide bombings and rocket fire, were interdicted by security forces.
The reasons for the latest outbreak of violence appear obscure and localized, arising from a mixture of local gang rivalries and political feuds among Palestinian factions. Palestinian and Israeli observers alike warned that continued escalation could bring about the collapse of Mahmoud Abbas’s fragile reign as chairman of the Palestinian Authority, and perhaps sabotage Israel’s Gaza and West Bank withdrawal plans.
The organization most singled out for blame was Islamic Jihad, a small fundamentalist group that never agreed to the February cease-fire. Unlike the larger Hamas, which is the fastest-growing political force on the Palestinian scene and has much to gain from the Israeli withdrawal, Islamic Jihad doesn’t see the completion of the Israeli evacuation as being in its interest. Islamic Jihad operatives were behind several of the recent terrorist attacks: the shooting deaths of a pair of 17-year-old hitchhikers near Hebron in the West Bank, the killing of an Israeli near the separation fence a few miles south of Jenin, and the ambush in which an Israeli soldier died in Gaza.
Another attack blamed on Islamic Jihad, possibly in cooperation with a breakaway group from Abbas’s Fatah movement, was the firing of five rockets last week from Jenin in the northern West Bank. Rocket production has been limited to Gaza up to now, and military intelligence sources said its appearance in the West Bank indicates a possible new level of threat after withdrawal from the area.
Breakaway Fatah gangs may also have been behind the gunfire that disrupted an appearance last week by Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia in a refugee camp near Nablus. Gunmen opened fire outside the hall where Qureia was speaking and blew up a bomb nearby.
Senior government sources said the timing of the attacks might be linked to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s visit to the area last week, which the militants hoped to mar. Whatever the attackers’ motives, the attacks put Israel in a tough spot. If it responds harshly, it could further weaken Abbas, who is barely clinging to the vestiges of authority.
Despite Israel’s disappointment in him, Abbas is still the great hope of those — both here and abroad — who wish to see a stable Palestinian regime. No one here has forgotten Abbas’s short and unsuccessful term as prime minister under Yasser Arafat in the summer of 2003, which ended when a cease-fire he had brokered collapsed. None other than the Israeli military’s then-chief of staff, Lieutenant General Moshe Ya’alon, publicly accused Prime Minister Sharon and Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz at the time of contributing to his downfall by failing to give him running room. The last thing anybody in Jerusalem wants now is to take the blame for his fall again.
On the other hand, Sharon is under intense pressure from his right wing as disengagement nears. He faces new charges every day as to his motives in planning and carrying out the disengagement. He can’t afford right now to appear as though he were going soft on terrorism.
Fortuitously, the government was bailed out by some successful intelligence work by the Shin Bet security service. Within days after the latest round of attacks, the Shin Bet was able to track down several dozen Islamic Jihad operatives in the West Bank. About 50 were arrested, a senior operative was killed, and two would-be suicide bombers were apprehended before they could carry out a planned double attack in Jerusalem. The swift, focused response enabled Israel to reduce the attacks without appearing as the aggressor on the eve of Rice’s visit.
But threats to the relative calm of the past few months still abound. Hamas is still smarting from Abbas’s attempts to nullify the results of municipal elections won by Hamas-backed candidates in May, and further annoyed by the postponement of parliamentary elections that had been scheduled for July.
Hamas long ago developed the habit of venting its anger on Israeli targets. In June, for example, the nullification of Hamas victories in three localities in Gaza brought about a barrage of Qassam rockets on Gaza settlements and on the Negev town of Sderot. Most informed observers dismissed the idea that the bombardments were a sign of Hamas abandoning the cease-fire or giving up on cooperation with Israel’s withdrawal. Still, a single unlucky hit, causing loss of lives, could be enough to re-ignite a cycle of violence and bring down the whole structure.
In Israel itself, military sources continue to warn that the day after the disengagement may well turn out to be a bloody one; barring a dramatic breakthrough in negotiations that almost no one thinks likely, Palestinian militants are expected to abandon the cease-fire and launch a new round of terrorist attacks from the West Bank.
The view is not unanimous. The Shin Bet appears to dismiss the likelihood of a new eruption. The security service believes the Palestinians will want to maintain quiet in order to secure their gains, as former Shin Bet director Avi Dichter said in a series of newspaper interviews after he stepped down last month.
But while Dichter’s view received wide press coverage at the time, the army’s gloomier assessment is heard constantly, repeated by army officers in anonymous briefings and raised in repeated media appearances by Ya’alon, who also stepped down last month. As a result, polls show public support growing for tougher Israeli responses — something that has been known to affect government decisions.