Israelís response to the suicide bombing Monday outside a Netanya mall that killed five apparently will be measured, with pinpoint operations continuing against the infrastructure of Islamic Jihad rather than a massive ground operation in the West Bank.
Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom reportedly told U.S. Ambassador Richard Jones that Israel will try to arrest members of Islamic Jihad, which claimed responsibility for the attack, and locate and destroy its bomb factories.
Israel launched an investigation this week to learn how the Palestinian suicide bomber was able to enter the country with an explosive that authorities reportedly had been hunting for two weeks.
Hillel Frisch, a political science professor at Bar-Ilan University, agreed with the targeting strategy, "given Israel’s military capabilities in the West Bank for precision surgical operations rather than a massive show of force whose effectiveness is in doubt but is sure to augment the ranks of those who would kill Israelis."
Israeli media reported that in the past two months, Israeli forces have been carrying out precision raids in the northern West Bank that have killed two Islamic Jihad members, wounded 28 and led to the arrest of more than 75.
The discovery two weeks ago of a bomb factory in Jenin and the realization that a bag of explosives was missing touched off a search that ended with Monday’s suicide bombing.
Although it was unclear whether the suicide bomber, 23-year-old Lotfi Abu Saada, entered Israel through one of the West Bank crossings controlled by the Israeli military or from an area where the security barrier is under construction, Frisch said his ability to enter the country "is proving little by little that the security fence doesn’t work."
"When you have a static barrier against a working human mind, that human mind is going to win," he said.
"What does that mean? That offensive measures are more important than defensive measures. It establishes a ranking of importance in factors that assure Israeli security in the face of terrorism. The most important is a strong state on the other side that knows there is a lot to lose if they allow terrorism through; the second is offensive operations. The third and least best is the security fence."
Even as Israeli forces were arresting Islamic Jihad members, the Palestinian Authority announced that it had arrested four members of the terrorist group in Nablus.
Media reports said attempts to arrest another member in Jenin were foiled by scores of Fatah and Islamic Jihad gunmen backed by civilians. A similar incident occurred in the Balata and Askar refugee camps near Nablus when dozens of gunmen repelled the PA security forces with stones.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, widely known as Abu Mazen, condemned the suicide bombing and promised to bring to justice those responsible.
An Islamic Jihad official accused the PA of succumbing to Israeli and American pressure by issuing the statement and arresting its members.
But Zalman Shalom, former Israeli ambassador to the United States, scoffed at the PA’s response.
"All the declarations of Abu Mazen and some of his people that they oppose violence and terror aren’t worth the paper they are written on," Shalom said. "Any additional terror attacks which are in our view a direct result of the failure of the Palestinian Authority to live up to its commitment to destroy the terrorist infrastructure not only weakens the position of Mr. Abu Mazen in the eyes of international (including American and Israeli) public opinion, but it also puts the chance of the Palestinians achieving statehood ever more distant."
Afif Safieh, the head of the PLO Mission to the U.S., told a meeting of the Israel Policy Forum Monday that Abbas has resisted disarming Palestinian terrorists because that would touch off a civil war.
Not only has Abbas chosen not to disarm terrorists, but he is rewarding their families, the American Jewish Congress charged Monday.
The organization said it had confirmed with Israeli officials an Arab press report that Abbas signed legislation Monday that would offer financial support to the families of suicide bombers. The AJCongress said the move appeared designed to "lure voters away from Hamas" in advance of the Jan. 25 Palestinian parliamentary election.
"Not everything is permissible in the name of winning elections, and this action in particular is obscene," said Paul Miller, president of the AJCongress. "Rather than confront Hamas, Abbas is playing according to their rules. This latest move to emulate Hamas is testimony to the power of terrorism in Palestinian political culture. … This action makes the Palestinian Authority complicit in murder."
Shoval said that "if the report is true, this could stop the peace process altogether."
The bombing appears to have weakened support for the Labor Party in Israel’s March general election. A poll released Wednesday by the Israeli newspaper Haaretz found that Labor would win 22 seats, a loss of four in the last week. Sharon’s Kadima Party would win 39 seats, a gain of two seats, and Likud (which is widely expected to select former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as its leader in another week) would win 12 seats, an increase of three from the prior week.
Matan Vilnai, a Labor Knesset member, told Israel Radio that the poll only represents current sentiment and that the elections are another four months away.
"What is clear is that we are a clear alternative with clear stances both in the social field and the security field," Vilnai said.
But Ethan Dor Shav, an associate fellow at the Shalem Center, a Jerusalem think tank, said Labor is losing support because the agenda of its candidate for prime minister, Amir Peretz, is not security.
"Suddenly Netanyahu seems more relevant and Likud seems more relevant," he said. "What it will do for Ariel Sharon is an open question. … The Israeli public has yet to take away from Sharon his security mantle. If it [terrorism] doesn’t reach a severe escalation, it’s going to be manageable for Sharon. He can sail very smoothly on right through the elections unless there is a major change in the security situation."
Yossi Alpher, editor of the online Israeli-Palestinian opinion forum BitterLemons.org and a former head of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University, suggested that the elections are playing a role in Israel’s restrained military reaction to the suicide bombing.
"Both Sharon and [Defense Minister Shaul] Mofaz promised that disengagement would improve security," he said. "In some sense it makes sense for them to play this down and go for passive measures because if they do something bigger, it’s to say there’s a setback for security and they would then have to give answers to the public."
Stewart Ain is a staff writer. Joshua Mitnick is an Israel correspondent.