In a week that saw the most violence in Israel since the Six-Day War in 1967, Israel’s intensified efforts to destroy the Palestinian terrorist infrastructure was met with a series of devastating suicide bombings and shootings that left more than 30 Israelis dead. Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s response was to dig in his heels.
“It’s either them or us,” he told reporters. “We are with our back to the wall, and this is war.”
One of his advisers, Dore Gold, said there is a “historical pattern that only when you defeat the aggression imposed on you do you have any chance of going back to the negotiating table. Had Israel not vanquished the Egyptian army in 1973 by encircling the Egyptian Third Army, it is highly doubtful that [Egyptian President Anwar] Sadat would have visited Jerusalem in 1977. Only when the Egyptians understood that they had no military option against Israel — even under the conditions of a surprise attack — did they decide to pursue the diplomatic course.”
But David Newman, a political science professor at Ben-Gurion University, scoffed at such assertions.
“There are those who believe you need a strong man to beat them into submission,” he said. “But the evidence is there that it doesn’t work. That is what they have been trying to do for a year-and-a-half.”
Newman disagreed also with Gold’s analysis, saying the Egyptians view the Yom Kippur War “as a great military victory. They believe it threatened the existence of the State of Israel.”
Naomi Chazan, a member of the Knesset from the opposition Meretz Party, criticized the government for “taking a misconceived military policy and turning it into an insane policy.”
“We are in a cycle of violence that has to end,” she told The Jewish Week. “We have to pull back our forces from heavily populated Palestinian territory and renew diplomatic efforts that this government has not tried once since it entered office. Its approach of hitting them harder has only brought death and destruction to the Palestinians, and the country is not united. This government is endangering the State of Israel and that is why [Sharon’s] popularity is below 30 percent.”
“I think it’s time for the United States and the enlightened world to wake up and realize that if they don’t intervene, this place is going to explode,” Chazan added.
In a week that saw a suicide bomber kill 10 Israelis — including a couple and their two young children — as they left a Jerusalem synagogue at the end of Sabbath prayers, Jerusalem Mayor Ehud Olmert said Israel’s only response can be to “hit them back hard.”
“There is no political option here,” he stressed. “I wish there was a way to compromise with the Palestinians and bring about a way to stop it, but they don’t want that. They want Jewish blood and hope that will result in the collapse of the State of Israel. As painful as it is, we are not going to surrender. We are going to hit back very, very hard. We are not anxious to do it, but it is the only way left to us.”
Olmert said the terrorist attacks — including a Palestinian sniper who methodically killed 10 Israelis at a West Bank military checkpoint, the slaying of three Israelis at a Tel Aviv restaurant, an Israeli killed by a suicide bus bomber, and a 16-month-old baby who was injured when a Kassam-2 rocket that destroyed his home in the residential neighborhood of Sderot in the Negev — are “calculated operations inspired by [Palestinian President Yasir] Arafat and his people. It is not Hamas, Islamic Jihad or the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, it is Arafat. He is the terrorist.”
“Believe me,” Olmert added, “the voices and cries we hear from here are not a reflection of weakness. It is a natural reaction from people in pain. And when we are in pain, we are a lot more dangerous. They are going to learn a lesson I’m sure will be remembered forever by them.”
Laurie Glick, a 36-year-old mother of five who lives in the West Bank settlement of Efrat, told The Jewish Week by phone Tuesday: “I feel a lot of pain. It’s very scary these days. We worry about our children every day. There was a warning this morning that there might be an attack on a pre-school here. I have one child in the pre-school. There are no guards there and it’s very secluded. … It’s very scary to be a parent.”
That morning, one of her neighbors, Devorah Friedman, 45, was on her way from Efrat to Jerusalem when Palestinian snipers fired on her car from the hills surrounding the so-called “tunnel road” on which she was driving. She was struck and killed and her husband, who also was in the car, was shot in the leg.
“They brought him by ambulance from the hospital to the funeral,” said Glick. “He was still attached to the IV.”
She said she had organized a group of 15 women who were to take shooting lessons at the end of the week “to protect ourselves.” Their instructor was to have been the slain woman’s brother, a security guard in Efrat.
“Unfortunately, he’s now sitting shiva,” she said.
“We have to protect ourselves,” Glick added. “It’s so nerve wracking. You don’t know if you are going to be killed tomorrow. But we feel very strongly that this is where we are supposed to be. We have to protect our land.”
Arie Mekel, a spokesman for the Israeli government, said the firing of a Kassam-2 rocket into a neighborhood in Israel proper could not be tolerated and that orders went out to the military to make sure it doesn’t happen again.
“This is a priority,” he said, noting that when Israeli troops searched two Palestinian refugee camps late last week, they uncovered a workshop that manufactured the rockets.
Natan Sharansky, Israel’s minister of Housing and Construction and Deputy Prime Minister, said the security cabinet agreed Tuesday to instruct the Israeli military to launch a major offensive to dismantle the terrorist infrastructure and capture or destroy the Kassam-2 rockets.
“The army is working in Gaza, Judea and Samaria and after seven or 10 days it will be easier to decide if it brings us fruit,” he said Wednesday afternoon.
Asked if Israel could take any precautions against a Kassam-2 rocket fired at a commercial airliner landing at Ben-Gurion Airport, Sharansky replied: “We said that the moment the Kassams started falling on our houses, we would have to work immediately [to destroy them]. We have no choice but to make a military effort to take the poison out of the mouth of the snake. If we have to start thinking about building an anti-missile defense system, then the case is lost. Anti-missile systems won’t help because we’re talking hundreds of meters here, not kilometers.”
The debate in the security cabinet was said to have been fierce. Sharon wanted to again move tanks to the door of Arafat’s Ramallah compound, but Defense Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer, who is also leader of the Labor Party, prevailed on him not to do that.
After the four-hour session, Foreign Minister Shimon Peres reportedly said he was considering leaving the government now that diplomatic efforts have all but ended.
“If I would have known the reality would get this bad, I would not have joined this government in the first place,” he is said to have lamented. “The decision to hit the Palestinians even harder will not achieve anything. Entering the refugee camps and using fighter jets will only harm Israel’s sense of morality and its image abroad. We will pay a heavy price for scorning international opinion.”
But Sharansky told The Jewish Week that Peres’ assertion that Israel cannot defeat the Palestinian people had misunderstood Israel’s objectives.
“Of course you cannot defeat the Palestinian people,” he said. “But there is a corrupt dictatorial junta that uses its own people as cannon fodder, that tries to turn them through brainwashing into robots for suicide explosions. The sooner we give the Palestinians the opportunity to get rid of this junta, the sooner the Palestinians will have a normal life.”
Dr. Leonard Cole, former chair of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, said the real question now is whether Israel or the Palestinians will break first.
“Will the Palestinians say they have had enough and come to the [negotiating] table, or will Israel be subjected to such world pressure that it would be perceived as being too forceful in its response.”
New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton told Jewish leaders in New York Monday that she found during a 36-hour visit to Israel last month that Israel’s military offensive was not working.
“The harder Israel defends herself, the stronger Arafat becomes,” she said, citing Israeli military intelligence.
But Gerald Steinberg, a political science professor at Bar-Ilan University, said Israel has little choice but to continue its military offensive. At the same time, he said, the United States should apply pressure to the Arab states to accept the Saudi peace initiative when they hold a summit meeting in Beirut March 27. Under the Saudi plan, the Arab world would establish normalized relations with Israel if it agreed to return to the 1967 borders, with some agreed upon modifications.
“If you can get a ceasefire based on that, you could make some progress [toward a final settlement],” he said. “You can’t succeed without military and political pressure, and even then the chances of success are quite small.”
A spokesman for the Israel Policy Forum said his organization also held out hope for the Arab summit, at which the Syrians are expected to also support the Saudi plan.
“If the Saudi initiative becomes clarified and real at the summit, there is a chance that would pressure Arafat into finally dealing with the violence,” he said. “He’s not going to get any kind of diplomatic progress unless he does so.”