JERUSALEM — Israel’s summer of calm was on the verge of collapsing into new warfare this week, after a pair of deadly Palestinian terrorist attacks left tempers near the boiling point.
The back-to-back suicide bombings, the worst spate of terrorism since the Israeli-Palestinian cease-fire began six weeks ago, left two Israelis dead and several more seriously wounded. The government responded with an ultimatum to the Palestinian Authority to start fighting terrorism or face the end of the cease-fire and the collapse of the peace process.
Both Israel and the Palestinians were expected to back away from the brink and maintain the cease-fire, if only to avoid angering the Bush administration. Nonetheless, Israelis warned privately that their ability to continue moderating their responses was limited by growing anger in Israel over Arab attacks. The suicide bombings — one in the Tel Aviv suburb of Rosh Ha’ayin, the other in the West Bank township of Ariel — came less than 48 hours after a deadly attack on a northern Israeli town by Hezbollah militias firing anti-aircraft guns from southern Lebanon. Israel’s response, a targeted strike on the battery that fired on the town, prompted derision from the right and calls for a more forceful response.
Senior Israeli army officers said that the renewed outbreak of Palestinian violence had been “expected and predicted” by the army’s top brass. The military chief of staff, Lieutenant General Moshe Ya’alon, reportedly warned the Cabinet explicitly this week that the cease-fire’s “days were numbered.” The army, the sources added, is now gearing up for a “total collapse” of the cease-fire and the broader peace process.
The assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs, William Burns, who was here on a regional tour this week, warned the Palestinian leadership about the ominous Israeli mood and urged Palestinian Security Minister Mohammed Dahlan to take immediate steps against the terrorists in order to placate the Israelis. Officials expect other senior American figures, including Secretary of State Colin Powell and National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, to deliver personal warnings to the Palestinian prime minister, Mahmoud Abbas, that “time is running out” for decisive Palestinian action against the terrorists.
However, while Jerusalem was applying direct and indirect pressure on Abbas, both Israel and the Palestinians were pointing fingers at Hezbollah and Iran for instigating the renewed violence through their influence on renegade terrorist cells in the northern West Bank, particularly in the cities of Nablus and Jenin. During Burns’s visit he was shown secret intelligence dossiers by Prime Minister Sharon purportedly proving Hezbollah’s involvement with the rogue Fatah groups.
The allegations against Hezbollah came against the backdrop of increased violence by the Lebanese Islamic group along Israel’s northern border. Sharon urged Washington to apply greater pressure on Damascus to rein in Hezbollah, warning that Israel’s restrained response to this week’s attack on the town of Shlomi, in which a 16-year-old boy was killed, would not be repeated. Sharon said that if Hezbollah attacked again, Israel’s reactions would escalate significantly and include attacks on Syrian targets in Lebanon.
But while the Israeli government placed the blame for the renewed outburst of violence squarely on the shoulders of its Arab adversaries, Arab spokesmen as well as some critics on the Israeli left accused Sharon and the army of “provoking” both Hezbollah and the Palestinian terrorists. The Hezbollah bombardment of Israel’s northern border with anti-aircraft guns was depicted, both by the United Nations and by several Israeli analysts, as a direct response to ongoing Israeli air force reconnaissance flights over Lebanese territory as well as to the mysterious assassination last week in Beirut of Ali Hussein Saleh, a senior operative in Hezbollah’s military wing. Hezbollah blamed Israel for the killing. Israeli military sources, speaking on condition of anonymity, drew a link between Saleh and the Hezbollah-linked terrorist activities in the West Bank, implying that Israel had a motive to act.
The two suicide bombings, meanwhile, were linked by Palestinian spokesmen to an Israeli military operation in Nablus a week earlier in which two senior Hamas operatives were killed. Abbas, the Palestinian prime minister, had said the Israeli action undermined the cease-fire, and Hamas and Fatah groups in Nablus had pledged revenge. The perpetrators of both suicide bombings came from Nablus — they were said to be neighbors, though they did not know each other — and Israeli sources said responsibility for the bombings lay with the two groups. Hamas sources were quoted this week as saying that their attack had “evened the score” and they would continue to observe the cease-fire.
Israeli analysts were virtually unanimous in predicting that as it had in Lebanon, Israel would refrain from responding in full force to the Palestinian terrorist attacks. Israel, the analysts say, prefers at this point to “score points” in Washington, and is relying on American diplomatic pressure to bring about change in both Syrian and Palestinian attitudes to terrorism. But the analysts also agree that in the longer term, the cease-fire process may already be doomed because of the steady erosion of trust and the decline in contacts between the leaderships of both sides. Under these circumstances, the analysts said, once the “cycle of violence” begins to turn it is only a matter of time before it spins completely out of control.
The renewed violence on the two fronts –– in the north and center of the country –– contradicted the growing sense of calm, bordering on complacency, that had overtaken the Israeli public since the start of summer vacation. Business leaders and economists were expressing concern this week that the growing tensions on both fronts would reverse the recent modest indications of an upturn in Israel’s battered economy.
The renewed violence brought to a halt Israeli plans to release more Palestinian prisoners and to remove more roadblocks from West Bank roads. Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz, who cut short a summer vacation to come home and deal with the burgeoning violence, reiterated his pledge not to transfer any more West Bank towns to the Palestinians unless and until they started to “dismantle the terrorist infrastructure.”
The double bombings also may have short-circuited Defense Ministry plans to announce a change in the planned demarcation of the so-called separation fence between Israel and the West Bank. Bowing to unrelenting American pressure, Israel had decided to announce in the coming days that the fence would run along the Green Line and that plans for the fence to surround the towns of Ariel and Emanuel, deep inside West Bank territory, would be abandoned. Israel intended to reject American protests against the section of the fence running just outside Jerusalem’s municipal borders, which would encircle Arab areas near the capital.
But the renewed violence — especially the attack on a bus station just outside Ariel — put new pressure on Sharon to stick with the original plans for the fence, despite American objections. The continued delay of that part of the fence was also cited by residents of Rosh Ha’ayin, just inside the Green Line, as the main reason for the terrorists’s continuing ability to enter the town.
The increasing tensions between Israelis and Palestinians may also force Israeli police to shelve plans to allow Jews once again to visit the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. Jews have been barred by police from visiting the holy spot for nearly three years, due to the intifada, which broke out immediately after a visit to the compound in September 2000 by then-opposition leader Sharon. Police discreetly renewed visits by Jewish tourists to the Temple Mount last May, with the tacit agreement of the Muslim religious Waqf, which manages the sacred compound. However, press reports of the renewed visits forced police to renew the ban earlier this summer, for fear of precipitating renewed Palestinian violence. In turn, the new ban angered right-wing Israeli politicians, who tried unsuccessfully to force the issue last week, during the Jewish fast day Tisha B’Av. Israel’s internal security minister, Tzahi Hanegbi, responded by announcing that Israel would renew the visits next week. He is now expected to reconsider, given the combustible state of relations between Israel and the Palestinians.
On the plus side, at least as far as Sharon’s political fortunes are concerned, the renewed outbreak of violence will probably shift public attention away, at least temporarily, from the government’s economic policies, which continue to be highly unpopular, and, more significantly, from the ongoing police investigations of alleged misdeeds by the prime minister and his sons. “Leave it to the Palestinians,” quipped one frustrated Labor politician, “to save Sharon in the nick of time.”