Amid growing calls for a renewed major military offensive to complete the destruction of the terrorist infrastructure in the territories, Israelis braced for more attacks from Palestinian suicide bombers and gunmen who have killed at least 31 Israelis since Operation Defensive Shield ended in early May.
Israeli officials insist their six-week assault in the West Bank that began March 29 was having success before it was aborted under pressure from the United States. But there appeared no consensus on whether to resume the assault.
"We’ll have to have another Operation Defensive Shield," Acting Minister of Infrastructure Naomi Blumenthal told The Jewish Week. "It was effective for a while. We knew all the time that you can’t stop everybody, but we stopped a huge number [of would-be terrorists]. This is the only solution. … We donít have a partner [for peace]. We don’t have another solution."
But Deputy Defense Minister Dalia Rabin-Pelossof told Israel’s Channel One television that although the military offensive "hit the terrorist infrastructure hard, it is clear [Palestinian] motivation has risen as a result and more suicide bombers have been created."
The Israeli cabinet met Wednesday to consider a response to the almost daily Palestinian attacks but no military operations were approved. Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said the cabinet would discuss the issue again next week and that until then, Israel would continue to mount raids and brief incursions in response to intelligence reports.
"Israel is being very careful in the level of force it is using," said Dore Gold, an adviser to Sharon. "It is operating with small units and a handful of soldiers on the basis of intelligence and with pinpoint [objectives]. We have no interest in staying in those Palestinian cities, but clearly [those operations] have not been sufficient [to stop the attacks]."
Gold said Israel’s primary desire is that the Palestinians have a "change of heart … and turn over a new leaf. We have heard that there was a great deal of introspection, that the Palestinians were looking for reform. It was said that they were going to propose unification of their security forces. But unfortunately nothing like that has happened. We have just had a resumption of terrorism."
Rabin-Pelossof said Israel was moving ahead with plans to erect physical barriers between Israel proper and the West Bank to keep Palestinian terrorists out. A similar fence in the Gaza Strip has proven successful.
"What is clear is that the reality makes it essential to create physical separation," she said, adding that a fence should be erected in a matter of weeks in the "most sensitive parts" of the border.
Already, five miles of fence have gone up around Jerusalem, part of a 12-mile wall as high as 9-feet that is expected to be completed in the next six months.
Israeli officials insist the fence is not being erected along a border and in no way will compromise Israelís claims to territory in the West Bank.
"We are putting here some obstacles in order to facilitate the ability of our security forces to intercept suicide bombers," Uzi Landau, Israel’s internal security minister, told reporters. "Nobody’s speaking here about a border."
But Rabbi Yehuda Gilad, a Knesset member from the Meimad Party, said the fence "will take time" to build and will do nothing to stop Palestinian terrorists from attacking Israelis in the territories.
"The problem right now is that they want to concentrate on the settlers," he said of the terrorists.
On Tuesday night, a Palestinian gunman managed to sneak into the West Bank settlement of Itamar near Nablus, kill three Israeli high school students and wound two others before being shot dead. (See box below.)
A resident of the Itamar, Moshe Goldsmith, was asked how he felt about being on the other side of the fence the Israeli government is erecting around large areas of Israel proper. Goldsmith replied: "We know that one of [the terrorists’] goals is to make life difficult for the settlers and to kill as many Jews as they can. Part of our struggle is to hold onto the land given by HaShem [God] to the Jewish people. Everyone in Israel is on the front line. [Terror attacks] happen in the cities and settlements and along the northern border. Fences will not stop the problem, they will only limit infiltration. It won’t stop until Israel goes on the offensive and wipes out the terrorists themselves."
The Itamar attack, which came just hours after a Palestinian gunman killed a Jerusalem motorist in an ambush on a highway south of the West Bank settlement of Ofra, followed five suicide bombings in less than a week. Among them were an attack outside an outdoor ice cream parlor Monday in Petah Tikvah that killed a 56-year woman, Ruth Peled, and her 15-month-old granddaughter, Sinai Keinan.
There was also a failed attempt to blow up the Pi Glilot petroleum and gas storage facility in Herzliya. Terrorists had attached a bomb to the chassis of a diesel fuel tanker that had arrived at the depot earlier in the day. The driver was standing on top of the tanker while it was taking on fuel when the bomb was triggered, apparently by a cell phone, which was found at the scene. The bomb touched off a fire that was quickly extinguished and there were no injuries.
Authorities said it was one of the most sophisticated attacks the Palestinians have carried out, with the bomb being attached at a time and place that avoided detection. In addition, the terrorists had to observe the truck for hours and time the explosion for the very moment when the fueling was taking place.
"I don’t think people have appreciated the severity of the failed attack," said Gold, Sharon’s adviser. "Whoever conducted that attack understood that he would be producing the equivalent of a non-conventional attack against Israel that would have caused massive destruction and a tremendous loss of life."
"That means Israel has to think very carefully about the nature of the threat it still faces," he added.
Limor Livnat, Israelís education minister, said there is a school near the depot and that the parents of students there were refusing to send their children while a danger existed.
"I cannot force the parents to send the students when there is danger," she said last week during a brief visit to New York.
Blumenthal, the acting minister of infrastructure, said she met with the parents Tuesday to assure them that steps were being taken to secure the facility. She said that within the next 10 months, the gas distribution system, including the tanks, would be placed underground and security tightened.
"For more than 10 years now, every minister who has come to office has tried to deal with the problem of this place," she said. "It is near northern Tel Aviv and there is a lot of population around it. Every minister has said he would move the facility" but has failed because no alternative site has been found.
After placing the facility underground, Blumenthal said, efforts would be made to relocate it.
As the threat of continued terrorism hung over the country, the value of the Israeli shekel fell to an all-time low Wednesday of 5 to $1. This came as the Knesset was preparing to vote in coming days to approve an emergency finance plan that cut $2.6 billion from the budget.
Livnat said it would mean the loss of 400 to 500 teachers. She said she initially refused to approve the budget because it called for an additional $20 million cut from the education budget: a cut that had not been approved by the government. Had it been approved, it would have meant a loss of 1,500 teachers. There are 1.5 million students in Israel’s educational system.
"I could not accept that," she said. "I was also afraid we would have to cut hours from class time. We have had three cuts in the educational budget since the end of last year that have totaled more than $150 million."
Livnat said her protests resulted in the money being put back in the budget, which she then voted for. The budget, which had been rejected on the first vote after Shas ministers unexpectedly decided to vote against it because of cuts in aid to families with a large number of children, was passed on the revote. Additional changes to the budget may be made before the Knesset is asked to give it final approval.
Asked about the continued terrorist attacks, Livnat said: "I’m the only education minister in the world who in the last 19 months has gone to funerals to bury young boys and girls and to hospitals to visit wounded children. This is something an education minister should not be involved with. I would rather be involved with upgrading the Israeli educational system and curriculum instead of dealing with 71 dead children under the age of 19. Compared to the United States, that would be 2,940 children."