JERUSALEM (Dec. 15)
Outrage and grief over the murder of an Israeli border policeman kidnapped by Moslem fundamentalists this week has not obscured an emerging shift in the Palestinian power lineup.
While a delegation closely aligned with the Palestine Liberation Organization holds slow-moving peace negotiations with Israel in Washington, radical Moslem fundamentalists are assuming a leading role in the administered territories themselves.
Terrorists linked with Hamas, the Islamic Resistance Movement in the territories, have been staging increasingly daring attacks.
One terrorist holed up in a village near Nablus last week fought off Israeli soldiers, killing a border policeman as troops stormed his shelter. Other squads carried out two separate ambushes of Israeli army vehicles, killing four soldiers and wounding several others.
And then on Sunday, members of Hamas’ military wing kidnapped and murdered border police Sgt. Maj. Nissim Toledano, a 29-year-old father of two.
Hamas has been gaining support in the administered territories in the past year as hopes faded for a quick breakthrough in the peace process.
It has won elections in a number of public organizations. And it recently negotiated an agreement giving it 40 percent representation in a newly appointed local council in the city of Gaza.
The movement’s standing received a boost when Israel’s prime minister announced publicly that he was ready to negotiate an exchange of the kidnapped border policeman for the ailing Hamas leader, Sheik Ahmed Yassin, who is now serving a life sentence in jail in connection with the murder of two soldiers.
Palestinian support is growing in the territories, particularly in the Gaza Strip, for the proposition that rifles should speak in the absence of gains by the PLO.
Some on the left side of the Israeli political spectrum are saying that Jerusalem is learning too late that a government that rejects the PLO as a negotiating partner will find itself compelled to talk to Hamas.
Moreover, there is fear that the success of the Hamas and of the competing Islamic Jihad organization may radicalize secular groups associated with the PLO.
What can Israel do?
On the military scene, not much. It closed off traffic from the territories to Israel proper in the wake of the kidnapping and rounded up about 1,000 Hamas activists, among them high-level leaders of the movement. But it is unclear whether this will reverse the recent upsurge in Hamas radicalism.
Heads of political committees in the Gaza Strip that are affiliated with the PLO this week called for suspension of the peace talks in Washington. Leaders of PLO-affiliated terror groups are privately arguing that it is time to rejoin the “armed struggle” against Israel and not leave Hamas in sole command of the battlefield.
A few months ago, the concern was that an agreement with the Palestinians would trigger internal warfare among Palestinian factions. Now, it seems, the factions are competing over who can hurt the Israelis more. From Gaza, the talks in Washington seem to be taking place on another planet.
The frustration is not only that of the Palestinians. The Israeli opposition, led by the Likud, is planning a no-confidence motion in the government, against the background of the deteriorating security situation.
The former Likud prime minister, Yitzhak Shamir, recovering at home from surgery, said the security situation would not have gone downhill had he been in power.
More significantly, the Jewish street is also warming up. Several hundred Jews blocked traffic Monday night in the Arab-populated Rakevet neighborhood of Lod, hometown of the murdered border policeman.
Police dispersed the crowd and arrested two demonstrators. Rioters stoned the residence of Lod’s mayor, Maxim Levy, brother of former Foreign Minister David Levy, as an expression of their displeasure with the authorities. The major blamed the attack on activists of the extremist Kach movement.
By midweek, Palestinian radicals seemed to be getting closer to achieving their goal of disrupting the peace process.
It was precisely that point which provided a consistent focus for Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin as tension over the kidnap-murder mounted. In public appearances and a television interview, he reiterated that nothing would deter him from pursuing peace.
Rabin, who also holds the defense portfolio, rejected charges that the security situation has deteriorated. On the contrary, he said, in the past half year it has improved, as a result of the decision to block male residents of the Gaza Strip under age 20 from entering Israel proper.