JERUSALEM — Facing a potential conflagration on its northern border and a storm of domestic criticism over its bombing of a deserted terrorist training camp in Syria, Israel decided this week to escalate its land campaign against Palestinian terrorists in the West Bank.
Among its planned measures, senior military sources said, Israel was seeking “the first opportunity” to expel Yasser Arafat.
The new tensions in the region come in the wake of last Saturday’s deadly suicide attack in the Maxim restaurant in Haifa, in which 19 Israelis were killed. A day later, Israeli air force jets bombed an Islamic Jihad training camp about 10 miles northwest of Damascus.
Following the air raid, the army was reinforcing its presence along Israel’s border with Lebanon, fearing that Syria would retaliate by allowing its proxy Hezbollah to expand its attacks on Israeli military posts and civilian targets. Israel sent a stern warning to Damascus that any such escalation could lead to a massive Israeli reprisal against both Lebanese and Syrian targets.
The first signs of escalation came on Yom Kippur, the day after the Israeli raid, when sniper fire from Lebanon killed an Israeli soldier, Pittsburgh-born Staff Sergeant David Solomonov, 21. Military sources described the shooting as one of the most serious incidents along the northern border since Israel withdrew its troops from Lebanon three years ago.
The latest wave of terrorist attacks, following a period of relative calm last summer, has put intense pressure on Prime Minister Sharon’s government to show the public that is has “found a solution” to Palestinian terrorism.
The decision to bomb in Syria brought unexpectedly sharp domestic criticism down on Prime Minister Sharon and his Cabinet from an unusually broad array of critics. On the left, Labor Party leaders condemned the raid as reckless adventurism. Critics on the right, including some ministers in Sharon’s own Cabinet, charged that the attack was meant to divert attention away from Sharon’s failure to halt Palestinian terrorism and his reluctance to expel Arafat in response to the Haifa bombing.
Sources in the Prime Minister’s Office scoffed at the criticism, saying Sharon had refrained from expelling Arafat in the wake of the Haifa bombing only because of the Yom Kippur holiday, during which Israel could not have coped adequately with the potential political and security ramifications of Arafat’s expulsion. The sources insisted that Sharon would “get rid” of Arafat sooner rather than later, and that the prime minister is prepared to “pay the price,” if any, for such a drastic move.
The sources added that Israel would in any case probably avoid striking at Arafat in the immediate wake of a terrorist attack, because of the scores of Palestinians who tend to flock to the Palestinian leader’s stronghold in Ramallah in order to serve as a “human shield” and to thwart any Israeli designs on their leader. “As always, we will seek an opportune time, when there is an element of surprise,” the sources said.
Observers said fear of an Israeli move against him had probably spurred Arafat to approve the swearing-in this week of a seven-member Palestinian “emergency cabinet” headed by a new prime minister, Ahmed Qurei.
Sharon has been under pressure from European and other diplomats to launch a dialogue with Qurei but has resisted, fearing that such a move might jeopardize any plans to expel Arafat. Sharon has demanded that Qurei prove himself by starting to combat extremist Islamic groups, but the new Palestinian leader has made clear that he does not plan to confront Hamas or Islamic Jihad by force, and will endeavor to achieve an internal cease-fire instead.
Government sources acknowledged that the attack on the Syrian target was motivated in part by Sharon’s desire to align Israel more closely with the American war on terrorism. Sharon is keenly aware, the sources said, of the prevailing animosity toward Syria in the top echelons of the Pentagon and in other quarters of the Bush administration. In contrast to a move against Arafat, which would likely bring American criticism if not its open condemnation, Sharon correctly anticipated that Washington would support the strike against Syria.
For much the same reasons, the sources said, Israel has begun to highlight the negative role played by Tehran in instigating and financing terrorism, both in Lebanon and inside the Palestinian territories.
Defense Ministry sources told the Forward that the plan to attack Syrian targets had been formulated two months ago, in the wake of the Hamas suicide bombing of a bus in Jerusalem in which 21 Israelis were killed.
The sources said that in the interim, Israel had conveyed several stern warnings to Damascus through American and European intermediaries, urging President Bashar Assad of Syria to dismantle the Palestinian terrorist infrastructure operating in his country. The warnings, the sources said, had been ignored.
Despite the open support given to the Israeli strike by President Bush and other top American officials, some Foreign Ministry officials expressed concern about a danger of growing resentment toward Israel within the administration if fallout from the Syrian attack weakens American efforts to garner Security Council support for its war effort in Iraq. The Prime Minister’s Office, however, retorted by claiming that the Bush administration was both “ideologically and practically” committed to an Israeli policy of striking at terrorists “wherever they are.”
Inside Israel, on the other hand, the strike was greeted with greater ambivalence, with criticism of the government coming both from the left and the right. The left was nearly unanimous in depicting the attack on the Islamic Jihad base as reckless adventurism. On the right, critics were led by Housing Minister Effi Eitam, leader of the National Religious Party and a resident of the Golan Heights on Syria’s border, who said that the attack needlessly risked the relative quiet that has marked Israel’s northern border for the last three years, and had diluted Israel’s main effort against Arafat and the Palestinians.
Criticism of the raid extended even to some of Sharon’s close allies within the Cabinet, several of whom expressed fears that the attack would, as one minister said, “do more damage than good.” The attack on the Ein Saheb camp was opposed by two of the five members of the ministerial forum convened to discuss it, Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom and Justice Minister Yosef Lapid. Backing Sharon were Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz and Trade and Industry Minister Ehud Olmert.
Defense sources explained that many of the terrorist attacks carried out by Hamas and Islamic Jihad have been financed, coordinated and directed from Damascus, and that Syria also provided basic terrorist training to Islamic militants later operating inside Israel. Critics of the government countered that attacking such bases as Ein Saheb would not dent the terrorists’ ability to carry out suicide bombings in Israel, but could potentially confront Israel with a two-front war, fighting both in the territories and along its northern border.
The government was also lambasted for carrying the war against Palestinian terrorism all the way to Syria, instead of concentrating of the completion of the so-called separation fence between Israel and the West Bank. Columnist Dan Margalit, an avid supporter of the fence, wrote in the Israeli daily Ma’ariv that Sharon and his government had recently delineated an unrealistic demarcation of the fence, so that it would encompass the West Bank town of Ariel and other Jewish settlements, and would thus never be completed. “Instead, the government is being dragged,” he wrote, “to the stupidity of trying to fight terrorism by long-range bombing, which won’t solve the problem, but only aggravate it.”
Perhaps most alarmed about the potential fallout from the attack on Syria were the local politicians and businessmen in Israel’s north, who live alongside the hitherto relatively peaceful border between Israel and Lebanon. Northern Israel’s main source of income comes from domestic tourism, and the local tourist industry had been expecting a fully booked Sukkot holiday. That may now be marred by talk of a potential escalation along the border. Given Israel’s general economic slump, it is not hard to understand why the northerners, who usually support tough Israeli measures against the Hezbollah, lobbied the government this week to keep calm and to try to defuse the tensions before the arrival of Sukkot.