As Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres spoke here this week of a cease-fire plan that would lead to a resumption of peace talks, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon ordered troops into another Palestinian refugee camp to destroy homes and huts used as cover to shoot at Israelis.
“There are differences of style and nuance,” Dore Gold, a senior aide to Sharon, explained of the Peres-Sharon approaches, “but the substance is the same.”
Both leaders, Gold said, are seeking an end to the cycle of violence that continues to spiral out of control with increasing intensity, seven months after it began.
“The purpose [of Israel’s response] is to crush their terrorist infrastructure,” explained Uzi Landau, Israel’s internal security minister.
Landau emphasized that the battle is a protracted affair and “what we are doing now is very moderate.”
Under the cover of darkness Wednesday, Israeli forces led by bulldozers and tanks moved about 100 yards into a Palestinian refugee camp in Rafah at the southern end of the Gaza Strip near the Egyptian border.
As Palestinian forces responded with grenades and automatic weapons fire, the bulldozers knocked down a reported 17 homes and surrounding sheds and chicken houses from which Israel claims snipers fired at Israelis. One Palestinian was killed.
A similar raid in the Gaza Strip last month brought strong negative American reaction when it was feared the troops would remain in Palestinian territory for weeks or months.
The troops Wednesday withdrew after four hours.
The most recent action came less than 24 hours after a four-hour firefight between Israeli forces and Palestinian police in Rafah that began after Israeli troops on routine patrol detected and detonated an explosive charge. Palestinian police hurled grenades and fired at the soldiers as they detonated two other charges.
The clash and the subsequent Israeli incursion followed a bloody two days of violence during which eight people — including two Palestinian children and an Israeli settler — were killed.
The settler, Assaf Hershkovitz, 30, of Ofra, was ambushed by Palestinian gunmen. Heightening the tragedy was the fact that Hershkovitz’s father, Aryeh, was killed in a similar attack three months ago.
The Palestinian children and five adults were killed in what Israelis suspect were Palestinian bomb-making factories in Gaza and Ramallah. The Palestinians insist the bombs were placed by Israel, which denied the allegation.
Sharon visited Ofra Wednesday to pay a shiva call to the Hershkovitz family and spoke with local Jewish leaders about ways to improve security. But increasingly settlers and others are blaming Sharon for not getting tough enough with Palestinian terrorists.
“Since he was appointed prime minister, there has been no improvement in Israel’s security situation,” wrote the daily Maariv in an editorial Wednesday. “The warfare with the Palestinians has been turned from being a bothersome nuisance into a near-war, and we are paying the price in blood every day. The situation, during which Sharon does nothing, is a keg of dynamite threatening to blow up any minute.”
As the violence raged, Peres flew to Washington at midweek for talks with President George W. Bush and other administration officials. At a news conference in New York on Tuesday, he said Israel was reconsidering an Egyptian-Jordanian cease-fire plan it had first rejected.
“Frankly, we don’t want to alienate Egypt and Jordan against us,” said Peres, who appeared tanned but sounded tired.
He said, however, that Israel does not agree with the proposal’s prohibition on expanding existing settlements, insisting that “organic” growth cannot be halted.
Also, while the Arabs are suggesting renewed negotiations after a four-week cease-fire, Peres said it would have to be sustained at least six weeks. Other Israeli officials are insisting on at least a few months of quiet before resuming talks.
As for the talks themselves, Peres said Israel wants them to be face to face, and will insist on mutual implementation. “Either the two sides do it, or nothing,” he asserted.
Peres sought to distinguish between negotiating under fire, which Sharon has pledged not to do, and “negotiating to end the fire,” which Peres said meant finding ways to establish a cease-fire.
He stressed that Israel has taken unilateral steps to ease the hardship on Palestinian workers and others, and described the current diplomatic situation as being “halfway, with half measures.”
“It’s bad for them [the Palestinians] and for us. It’s not that Oslo is dead,” he said, “but it’s not completed.”
At another New York appearance, Peres declared Palestinian President Yasir Arafat to be Israel’s “partner” for peace — a view certainly not widely shared back home.
“The farthest thing one can say about [Arafat] is that he is a partner for peace,” fumed Landau. “He is a man who gave a green light to everyone involved in terrorism to step up their activities.”
Landau said Israel is in a war and “our objective should be not to stop terrorism but crush it. That means we will have to continue with our combat on a consistent and ongoing manner regardless of what they do or do not do.”
The Egyptian-Jordanian cease-fire proposal Peres came to see Bush about has been embraced by the European Union’s foreign policy chief, Javier Solana, as “the only document at the table now that may help us out of the vicious circle in which we are now living.”
The cease-fire proposal contains provisions Israel cannot accept, according to Housing Minister Natan Sharansky.
“We would have to make political concessions while Arafat is involved in terrorism,” he said in an interview during a trip here last week. “That is unacceptable for Israel and it can have dangerous consequences regarding confrontation of terrorism in the free world.”
“They are also looking for a final solution,” he continued. “Oslo was based upon developing trust, but all of the trust has been destroyed. While we have been giving more and more and going through big changes, Arafat used the time to build more hatred against us. To now speak about making a final solution under the lines of Oslo is unacceptable.”
Editor and publisher Gary Rosenblatt contributed to this report.