Israel has embarked on a new strategy in its effort to convince Palestinian President Yasir Arafat to end the violence and return to the negotiating table — seize or destroy Palestinian property. It also positioned tanks to forcibly end regular Palestinian shooting at the residents of Gilo in southeastern Jerusalem.
image2goeshere The new get-tough approach followed two suicide bombings in three days. One in a Jerusalem restaurant killed 15 Israelis — including six children — and wounded 130 others, and the other Sunday on the patio of a restaurant in the port city of Haifa injured 30 Israelis.
“Whoever chooses the path of terror will also pay a political price,” Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon vowed Tuesday. “If the violence continues, the Palestinians will lose additional assets and they have plenty to lose.”
Uzi Landau, Israel’s internal security minister, said Israel was “pushed by the events to step up measures to protect its population. Our restraint policy for the last 10 months has resulted in around 160 casualties and many more people who were left crippled and injured, among them babies and kids on their way to school.”
“The prime minister is very wisely trying to maintain a balance,” he observed. “On the one hand he is trying to preserve the unity of the government, and at the same time he is moving in the right direction to combat terrorism. Some would argue that it should be at a more vigorous pace.
“But in the cabinet there are two schools of thought. [Foreign Minister Shimon] Peres sees the Palestinians as a partner and believes that the Oslo Accords are going to bring us peace. Others believe that Arafat is a partner of [Iraqi President] Saddam Hussein.”
Landau scoffed when asked about Sharon permitting Peres to negotiate a cease-fire with the Palestinians in return for not bolting the coalition government.
“I don’t believe in negotiating for a cease-fire,” he bristled. “They must simply stop.”
In the aftermath of the Jerusalem attack, Israeli forces used F-16 fighter jets to destroy the Palestinian Authority’s West Bank police headquarters in Ramallah, while Jerusalem police seized and shuttered the PLO’s East Jerusalem headquarters, Orient House, and nine buildings in nearby Abu Dis that served as the PLO’s military and political headquarters.
On Monday, Israeli tanks responded to the second suicide bombing by pushing a little more than a mile into the West Bank city of Jenin. They destroyed a security post and the Palestinian police station, where the Jerusalem suicide bomber had worked as a police officer until a few months ago. They left after three hours, saying they had not responded to Palestinian gunfire.
The Palestinian information minister, Yasir Abed Rabbo, called the Israeli action “a dangerous precedent” and a “grave escalation of Ariel Sharon’s government against the Palestinian people. This is the first such invasion of a Palestinian-controlled city since the signing of the Oslo Accords.”
Hours later, Palestinians in Beit Jala began a six-hour firefight with Israeli troops stationed in Gilo to protect the community. Shortly after the fighting ended, Sharon vowed that Gilo would never be attacked again and hours later Israeli tanks surrounded Beit Jala. The move was widely applauded across the Israeli political landscape, with some Israeli leaders saying it should have been done a long time ago.
Defense Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer said he postponed an actual incursion into Beit Jala after learning that Arafat had made a concerted effort to stop the shooting. He denied that pressure from Peres or the United States — the U.S. had only hours earlier strongly criticized Israel’s brief foray into Jenin — played a role.
But Israeli government’s decision to padlock Orient House has come under considerable criticism from the Israeli press and a number of Israeli leaders, among them Colette Avital, a Labor member of the Knesset.
“Taking Orient House is a symbolic act that signals to Arafat that unless he acts [against terrorists] he has something to lose,” she said. “But it does not have any real impact on possible acts of terrorism. It may even be worse because the more people feel humiliated, the more they would want to send [terrorists].”
She said the move was wrong also because it thrust Jerusalem into the “middle of the international debate and attracted international pressure on Jerusalem. We had managed to keep Jerusalem out of international [attention] … so I think it was ill advised. Instead of allowing the international community to condemn the PLO [for the suicide attacks], this action has turned them into victims again because the media can show how terrible Israel is by not allow Palestinian humanitarian institutions to operate [from Orient House].”
But a spokesman for Sharon, Raanan Gissin, said Orient House and the buildings in Abu Dis had served as “bases for subversive activity, violent interrogation and intimidation illegal in nature according to Oslo, which states that the Palestinians may only engage in cultural events or in local political acts, and certainly not subversive terrorist action.”
Although the Israeli flag flew over Orient House after Jerusalem police seized it and changed the locks, the flag was soon taken down and Peres said the closure is not permanent but will last for six months.
Rep. Gary Ackerman (D-Queens-L.I.) met with Arab leaders in the region during the last week, including Arafat, and told them that he understood that Orient House was a “symbol of your national aspirations. But it is a very easy thing for Israel to take and to leave. It can be given back in 10 minutes. Can you give back the lives that your [suicide] bombers took? You have been demanding land for peace, you have taken back the peace, what should Israel do? I said that although I wasn’t speaking for Israel, I believed they could have Orient House back quickly if they rounded up the terrorists for real” and not let them go after a few days.
Ackerman said also that he handed Arafat a list of four Palestinians the Israelis want arrested for terrorist activity. Although the names had been presented to the Palestinians before, Ackerman said Arafat looked at them quizzically and asked his aides if they knew the names.
“It was one of those hocus-pocus dances,” Ackerman said cynically.
He added that he believed Israel’s response to the suicide bombings had been “measured and temperate. The only thing Israelis have done is protected themselves.” And he said Arab leaders in neighboring countries express concern about a regional war and asked that UN or U.S. observers be sent to Israel.
“I said the U.S. is not going to send peace observers to a hostile situation when there is no peace to monitor,” Ackerman said.
President George W. Bush this week rejected suggestions that his administration take a more active role in the Middle East, insisting that it has been “engaged” since he took office. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State David Satterfield just this week swung through the region.
Bush called on both sides to end the violence, but saved his strongest words for Arafat, saying: “It is very important for Mr. Arafat to show 100 percent effort.”
Those words were welcomed by David Makovsky, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a pro-Israel think tank.
“Israel has made clear that this is not the time for an American initiative,” he said. “Arafat needs to arrest these [terrorists]. I think Bush is doing the right thing in making clear where the blame is.”
He said the U.S. must convince European nations that until Arafat “seriously tackles the issue of terrorism, he will not be invited to 10 Downing Street [in London] or to Berlin or other European capitals. He has played Europe off the U.S. and the world now has to unite and say no more.”
But Henry Siegman, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, said Israel and the Palestinians are incapable of resolving the conflict themselves and that “they need a powerful, influential third party to do it.” Yet the Bush administration, he said, “has essentially decided to let them kill each other and only step in when they get tired of it. That’s a very dangerous solution for the people in the region, and for this country’s interests.”
Siegman said Arafat runs the risk of a civil war if he tries to arrest Hamas and Islamic Jihad terrorists and that Israel has to offer him “something significant. He is not going to do it just to make the occupation more comfortable for the Sharon government.”
He suggested that Israel promise to pull back its forces to where they were before the violence began 10 months ago, end the closure of the territories and enter into a “serious return to the peace process. Arafat cannot be expected to [make arrests] if the best he can hope for is another 10 or 20 years of a non-aggression pact.”
Siegman was also pessimistic about Peres’ chances of success, saying that as long as Sharon insists on seven days of quiet before implementing the Mitchell peace plan, “Peres is wasting his time.”
In another development, Israeli snipers early Wednesday reportedly killed a leading member of Arafat’s Tanzim militia who was said to be responsible for several shootings of Israelis in the Hebron area.
A poll of Israelis by the Tami Steinmetz Center for Peace Research at Tel Aviv University at the end of July found that 70 percent supported such killings and that 63 percent believe Israel uses too little force against the Palestinians. The poll found also that 62 percent are against Israelis seeking their own revenge against Palestinians, and 60 percent said they do not believe peace will be realized in the coming years, although 59 percent favor negotiations.
A CNN/USA Today Gallup Poll conducted Aug. 10-12 found that fully 64 percent of Americans do not believe there will ever be a time when Israel lives in peace with its Arab neighbors — the highest percentage since the question was first asked in 1997. It found also that 41 percent of respondents were more sympathetic to Israel — only 13 percent sided with the Arabs; and 65 percent do not believe the U.S. should take a more active role in seeking a diplomatic solution to end the violence in the Middle East.
Israel correspondent Matthew A. Gutman and Washington correspondent James D. Besser contributed to this report.