Even as Israeli forces continued their unrelenting efforts to kill Palestinian terrorists and to arrest their political leaders, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon planned to meet with a high-ranking Palestinian leader to renew peace talks.
In an interview published Wednesday by the Israeli newspaper Yediot Ahronot, Sharon said the meeting with an unnamed official would take place in the next few days: a sign, he said, that the Palestinian war machine is breaking down.
"Their hope that we would break has proven false," Sharon told the newspaper. "Israeli society has withstood terrible tests of terror and didn’t break. Contrary to this, in Palestinian society there are cracks due to the understanding that they will not succeed in breaking us."
Leaders of Palestinian factions were quoted last weekend as acknowledging that the Israeli military offensive was taking its toll on their terrorist operations. However, observers said it was unclear whether Israel would be able to deliver a knockout punch.
Sharon expressed hopes in remarks Tuesday night that the "cracks" developing among the Palestinians might lead to an opening for future Israeli troop withdrawals from the territories. Those withdrawals began last month under what is known as the Gaza-Bethlehem first plan, calling for Israel to pull back as Palestinian security forces tightened their hold on the areas. So far the results have been mixed.
Evidence of the division among the Palestinians was seen in an open letter to Palestinian President Yasir Arafat by a former Palestinian Authority cabinet minister, Nabil Amer, in which he accused Arafat of missing an opportunity for Palestinian statehood and peace with Israel during talks at Camp David in July 2000.
"After two years of bloodshed, we are now calling for what we rejected," he wrote. "Perhaps because now we realize that it is impossible to achieve."
The letter, published by a Palestinian Authority publication in Ramallah after first appearing in an Arab newspaper in London, also called for sweeping Palestinian Authority reforms and blamed Arafat for leading his people from one disaster to the next.
A call by the PAís new interior minister, Abdel Razak Yehiyeh, for an end to Palestinian violence against Israelis was roundly rejected by militant groups. Yehiyeh had argued in an interview with Reuters that the violence only harmed the Palestinian cause and he added that the PA was having difficulty "regaining full control" of security in Palestinian areas.
Although Sharonís announced meeting with a Palestinian official is seen as a break with his position of not holding talks until Palestinian violence has ended, Gerald Steinberg, a political science professor at Bar-Ilan University, warned against reading too much into the meeting.
"He wants to maintain his coalition government and so he has to show some sort of minimum political movement," he said. "That’s why the Gaza-Bethlehem first plan was initiated, why he allowed the Palestinian Legislative Council to meet [Sept. 9 in Ramallah] and why he is meeting with a Palestinian official. It’s all primarily for internal consumption and to keep the Americans happy. … But it should not be seen as a breakthrough."
Steinberg said that while Israel prepares for an American attack on Iraq (reportedly as early as November 1) to depose its leader, Saddam Hussein, it is also carefully watching its northern border with Lebanon.
Hezbollah terrorists along the border fired missiles and mortars on Israeli outposts in the Sheba Farms region late last week, wounding three Israeli soldiers, one of whom later died. Sgt. Ofir Mishal, 20, became the fifth Israeli soldier killed in the north since Israel withdrew from the Lebanese border in May 1999.
Hezbollah claims that region belongs to Syria and that it is trying to liberate it; Israel and the United Nations refute that claim.
On Monday, Hezbollah anti-aircraft gunners opened fire on Israeli patrol planes for a second straight day. Israeli media reports said the Sharon government has decided against responding at the moment, but Steinberg said he would not rule out a military response.
"There are some reports that Hezbollah is preparing a major attack," he said, adding that Israel might launch a pre-emptive strike. Steinberg said he believed that Syria, which is the de facto ruler of Lebanon and supports Hezbollah, would not be able to mount a significant military response to an Israeli attack and that the United States would understand Israelís action even as it considers its own pre-emptive strike against Iraq.
In Israel’s war against terrorists, about a dozen Palestinian civilians have been killed in recent weeks, prompting Israeli Defense Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer to call for an investigation by Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Moshe Ya’alon. But Steinberg said he expected the investigation to clear Israeli troops of wrongdoing in at least one case and to find that "bad luck and bad judgment" were responsible in other cases.
"I think the inquiry is going to say we are in a state of war and it is not going to say that anyone was trigger-happy," he said.
Among the deaths under investigation was the killing of four Palestinians (a mother, two of her children and their cousin) late last week in Gaza when an Israeli tank fired at them. Israel said the tank fired at an area in which Palestinians were not supposed to be, but it later apologized.
On Tuesday, a Palestinian ambulance took two other Palestinian men injured in the attack from Shiffa Hospital in Gaza City to the Soroka University Medical Center of the Negev for treatment after their father publicly asked that Israel help them. Mona Abramson, executive director of the American Friends of Saroka in New York, pointed out that Soroka’s staff is expert in treating severe burns and is the only regional trauma center in the area.
Court Oks Move To Gaza
Meanwhile, the sister and brother of a Palestinian terrorist, Ali Ajouri, killed in an Israeli army attack Aug. 6, were forcibly moved to the Gaza Strip Wednesday. Israel’s highest court ruled unanimously that they had helped their brother organize several suicide bombings and that they still represented a threat to the state.
The court said the government had proven that Intisar Ajouri had sewn the explosive belt used in one of the attacks and that Kifah Ajouri provided their brother with a hideout and acted as a lookout while the explosives were being transported. But it said a third man could not be forcibly ejected from his home because the government had not presented compelling evidence that he had conspired with his brother in a bus ambush in the West Bank.
Dore Gold, an adviser to Sharon, said the court pointed out that Israel had the legal right to order the move according to the provisions of the Fourth Geneva Convention. The court said it was not sanctioning the deportation or forcible transfer of the pair, which the convention explicitly prohibits. Rather, it said, it was acting under Article 78 of the convention, which permits "assigned residence," and that the family members can return in two years. Its actions, the court said, could serve as a deterrent to other Palestinians.
The United States criticized the move and Amnesty International rejected the court’s reasoning and called it a "war crime." The American Jewish Congress condemned Amnesty International, calling its statement an "outrageous reaction."
Former New Yorker Recovering
In another development, a 23-year-old former Scarsdale woman, Dalit Rand, who made aliyah five years ago, returned to her home in Jerusalem early Wednesday after being treated for six bullet wounds sustained last Saturday night when a Palestinian terrorist shot her and her husband while they prepared to board a bullet-proof bus in the West Bank settlement of Har Bracha.
The couple had gone there to attend a celebration of her brother’s marriage.
When the terrorist opened fire, Dalitís husband, Yakov, 23, threw himself on top of his wife to shield her with his body. Three bullets struck and seriously injured him before the gunman was himself shot and killed.
Dalit’s grandmother, Madeleine Murciano of Forest Hills, Queens, said she and her husband, Rabbi Asher Murciano of the Sephardic Jewish Center of Forest Hills, were thankful that the couple survived the attack. She noted that Dalit is two months pregnant.
"This is a family that has done so many good deeds," she said. "If anyone deserves a miracle, they do."
One of Dalit’s four siblings, Navit Tzadik, said her sister returned home with some bullets still lodged in her body but that no vital organs had been hit.
"She’s doing a lot better," Navit said shortly after her sister’s arrival. "It’s a miracle that after being shot six times she is home in just three days. And Yakov should be home in another two days. He was shot in the back, a leg and an arm."
Dalit’s parents, Dr. Robert and Aviva Comet-Murciano, raised their children as Orthodox Jews, according to Rabbi Haskel Lookstein, head of the Ramaz High School in Manhattan, from which Dalit graduated in 1997.
"Dalit and her older sister, Atira, put on tallit and tefillin since their bat mitzvah," he recalled. "They wanted to put them on in Ramaz at our regular minyan. But since that was not our common practice, I made a special arrangement for them to come to the morning minyan at Kehilath Jeshurun. Their father would drive them [and join them] every morning and they wore them there. … This is an extraordinarily committed family."