JERUSALEM (Oct. 26)
When Israelis and Arabs launched a new peace process in Madrid a year ago, Jerusalem knew all too well there were plenty of minefields along the way, and that extremists would do everything in their power to blow up the talks.
And yet when that prognosis became a deadly reality Sunday, with six Israeli soldiers killed in one day, five in Lebanon and one in the West Bank, it hurt almost too much to bear.
Politicians and senior army officers made all the expected promises to find and punish the perpetrators. Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin vowed to act “with an iron fist against the violence” although adding that Israel’s hand remained outstretched for peace.
These measures could provide little comfort to six bereaved families.
An imbalance is built into the situation. Israeli policy-makers are determined to pursue the peace process as if there were no escalation in the intifada. But the Israel Defense Force cannot fight the intifada as if there were no peace process.
There is much truth to claims by the right-wing opposition that the army’s hands are tied in its battle against the Palestinian uprising in the territories.
Only two months ago, Israel freed 800 security prisoners as a gesture of good will toward the Palestinians amid a hopeful start to renewed peace talks.
New settlement building was frozen; a sit-in at A-Najah University in Nablus and a hunger strike by security prisoners ended with unprecedented agreements between the government and local Palestinian leaders. For a while, the army even thinned out its presence in the territories.
But that was not enough to satisfy the extremists in the territories. In fact, extremists in hard-line groups like the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine and the Democratic Front oppose any degree of normalization, which could mean moving toward an accord on a transitional period of self-government in the territories.
And here, paradoxically, is the meeting point between the interests of the murderers of the soldier in Hebron and those of the Jews in Hebron whom he had guarded. Both want to halt the peace process.
‘VICIOUS CIRCLE HAS DEVELOPED’
The two attackers in Hebron were identified as members of the Izz a-Din al-Kassam terror cell, allied to the Gaza-based Hamas Moslem fundamentalist group.
Security forces believe the commander of the cell, Bashir Hamad, took part in the attack.
Several hours after the killing, hundreds of Jewish settlers drove from Hebron to Jerusalem to stage an angry demonstration outside the prime minister’s residence in Rehavia and at the King David Hotel, where Rabin was entertaining visiting Portuguese Prime Minister Anibal Cavaco Silva.
Police and security guards barely managed to hold back demonstrators from pushing into the hotel. Rabin and his guest had to leave through a back door.
At a time when extremists seem to be dictating the pace of events in the Palestinian street, it now appears a parallel development is taking place in the streets of Jewish settlements in the territories.
“A vicious circle has developed,” Rabin told foreign reporters after the protest at the King David Hotel. “The extremists on the Arab side nourish those on ours, and give them a reason to demonstrate.”
Since the beginning of this month, terrorists have struck nine times in Israel, the administered territories and southern Lebanon, killing six soldiers and three civilians, and wounding 19 more, seven of them seriously.
There is no clear answer to the question of why the terrorists are enjoying increasing success. A former senior army officer took a philosophical view: “There are better days and worse days,” said reserve Maj. Gen. Ori Orr, chairman of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee.
But there is more to it than bad luck. True, the terrorists are trying harder with the goal of blocking progress in the peace talks. But they also have increased capability.
They appear to be in possession of firearms they did not have in the past and are less hesitant in going beyond civilian to military targets. In the Oct. 17 ambush of an Israeli car near the settlement of Matityahu in the Judean Hills, they used a sophisticated trip-wire road bomb of a kind often used by terrorists in southern Lebanon.
Right-wing activists this week reiterated demands for a tougher hand against the terrorists. In the wake of Sunday’s attacks in Lebanon and Hebron, many demanded Rabin recall the Israeli delegation to the peace talks in Washington.
But Israeli policy-makers know the sad truth: Not much can be done to end Palestinian violence, which is woven into the fabric of a complex web of relationships.