JERUSALEM, Oct. 12 (JTA) — The brutal murder of three Israeli soldiers by a Palestinian mob in the West Bank has sickened Israelis and strengthened their government’s resolve to quell the ongoing unrest with whatever means are necessary.
Prime Minister Ehud Barak decried what he called the “shocking and heinous lynching” of the reservists, whose bloodied bodies were dumped onto the street outside a police station in Ramallah after rioting Palestinians bludgeoned them to death.
Barak responded to the incident by ordering combat helicopters to fire on key Palestinian installations — actions that Palestinian leaders said amounted to a declaration of war.
He also intensified efforts to set up an emergency government of national unity and vowed that Israel would take whatever steps are necessary to defend its people.
Throughout the country, Israelis expressed revulsion at the Ramallah killings — and fear and uncertainty about where events were leading. Some wanted revenge, biblical style, an eye for an eye.
“Only animals behave this way,” Avi Batish, a 20-year-old Jerusalemite, told the Israeli news Web site Ynet. “We don’t know how to strike back. We should take revenge in kind.”
“There is confusion and anger,” said Shlomo Benizri, a legislator from the fervently Orthodox Shas Party.
At least Barak’s decision to “shake the skies a bit” managed to “raise people’s spirits somewhat,” he added.
But an angry young settler from the Psagot settlement on the outskirts of Ramallah told Israel Television that he had “enough of this disgrace” and that the helicopter attacks were not sufficient.
“We should take down all of Ramallah,” he said.
Settler leaders were trying to keep their people restrained, but they said people’s patience was wearing thin.
By evening, an eerie quiet descended upon the streets of downtown Jerusalem — usually bustling with pre-weekend activity on a Thursday night — as the feeling of an impending war compelled most Israelis to stay home.
But not all was quiet in the West Bank. Late Thursday night, according to Israel Radio, a Palestinian crowd set fire to the ancient Jewish synagogue in the self-rule town of Jericho. There were reports that Israeli helicopters had struck West Bank sites after the synagogue attack.
The sharp escalation of violence has left little chance for the voices of peacemakers to be heard over the din of war cries.
Each passing day’s new surge of violence — along with the charges and countercharges over who is responsible for it — is making it harder for even the most pronounced dove to imagine a return to the negotiating table anytime soon.
And even if Israel and the Palestinians do manage to resume talks, untangling the knotty web of angry charges and recriminations may take months — leaving plenty of room for additional incidents on the ground to further undermine the cause of peace.
But talk of war, not peace, took prominence Thursday.
Palestinian officials — including Yasser Arafat — used the word to describe the Israeli helicopter attack Thursday on targets near the Palestinian Authority president’s headquarters in the Gaza Strip.
One of the targets reportedly hit was a post manned by Arafat’s elite bodyguard unit.
Less than an hour earlier, Israeli combat helicopters fired on targets in Ramallah, including a television station and the Palestinian police station where the three Israeli reservists were killed.
According to Palestinian hospital officials, 17 people were wounded in the Israeli attacks.
The Israeli army said the three reservists had made a wrong turn and accidentally ended up in a flashpoint for the recent violence.
For his part, Arafat remained defiant after the Israeli retaliation for the Ramallah killings, telling CNN, “We will not hesitate to continue the march to Jerusalem.”
U.S. officials, meanwhile, attempted to bring the two sides back from the brink.
At a news conference in Washington, President Clinton condemned the murder of the Israeli soldiers in Ramallah.
“There is no justification for mob violence,” said Clinton, who made no mention of Israel’s retaliatory strikes in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
“The alternative to the peace process is now no longer merely hypothetical,” he said. “It is unfolding today before our very eyes.”
Hours earlier, U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright called on Israel to put “an immediate end to the current operations of the IDF.”
“We have to get the violence to stop,” she told a news conference Thursday.
“There needs to be a cease-fire by both sides. Neither Israelis nor Palestinians can gain from further killing,” she said.
Albright also called upon “the entire international community to join the United States in urging Chairman Arafat to take the steps necessary to bring this senseless and destructive cycle of fighting to an end.”
But they made it clear that there would be more such actions if the Palestinian leadership did not rein in the mobs.
Barak sounded a similar warning during a news conference Thursday, when he said that Arafat — who “does not appear to us to be a partner for peace during this time” — should maintain control over his population, making it clear that otherwise Israel would do it for him.
Barak also said during the televised address that a national emergency government is “necessary for the State of Israel.”
He called on all party leaders to put aside their differences and “stand shoulder to shoulder to face all the challenges” now confronting the Jewish state.
During an interview soon after on CNN, a visibly angry Barak said the helicopter attacks were a “signal” to the Palestinians that Israel knows where all the Palestinian installations and institutions are — and can target them again should events warrant.
The prime minister added that he expects Clinton and other foreign leaders to tell the world “loud and clear” that the Palestinians “failed to move forward to put an end to the bloodshed.”
He also defended the helicopter strikes in Ramallah and Gaza, saying they came in response to Palestinian provocations and, in an effort to keep casualties to a minimum, were preceded by warnings to the Palestinians.
Indeed, earlier Thursday, the Israeli army said it gave Palestinian security officials three hours’ advance warning to get their men out of installations in the West Bank and Gaza Strip before Israeli helicopter gun ships rocketed them.
“A maximum effort was made to keep the number of casualties as low as possible,” the head of the IDF Operations Branch, Maj. Gen. Giora Eiland, told a news conference.
Israel informed Palestinian security officials “on every possible channel that their headquarters are in danger,” Eiland said.
(JTA Foreign Editor Mitchell Danow contributed to this report.)