JERUSALEM, Nov. 22 (JTA) – With each new day, there is added reason to believe that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is spiraling out of control.
Hopes that the two sides may step back from the brink become increasingly dim as each new round of violence brings vows of retribution.
Such vows have repeatedly come from Palestinian sources, and this week they began to be sounded from Jerusalem as well.
For weeks, Prime Minister Ehud Barak has been adhering to what he called a “policy of restraint.” But following a terror bombing of an Israeli school bus Monday in the Gaza Strip, Barak was promising Israeli retaliation “to ensure that the violence stops.”
And on Wednesday, following a second terror attack – a car bombing in the northern Israeli town of Hadera – Barak was again promising to “settle accounts” with those responsible.
The premier also said the Palestinian Authority is “totally responsible for the attack” because it was releasing terrorists and “encouraging them, guiding their people, to carry out terror attacks.”
He spoke after the car bombing killed at least two people and wounded at least 25 others.
The bombing, which took place in the crowded downtown shopping area in Hadera, came during evening rush hour Wednesday.
A witness told Israel Television that a bus emerging from the town’s central station passed the bomb-rigged car.
The blast was so powerful that the bus slammed into a nearby store. Several stores in the vicinity caught fire, and the explosion could be heard from several blocks away.
Barak, who condemned the attack as a “barbaric act against innocent civilians,” convened the Security Cabinet for urgent consultations.
He also repeated his call for the creation of a national unity government to deal with the ongoing crisis.
In the political establishment, there were growing calls in favor of such a move.
Eli Yishai, political leader of the fervently Orthodox Shas Party, urged Likud leader Ariel Sharon to heed the call.
He also said Israel can respond forcefully to the Palestinians only if all political parties are part of the government.
But Sharon continued to oppose a unity government, instead decrying Barak and his policies at a right-wing demonstration in Jerusalem on Wednesday night.
“The problem is with the leadership and decision-makers, who have tired out. The battle against the rising terrorism has until now been waged hesitantly,” Sharon said.
Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat “is not a peace partner but a savage enemy,” he continued, to rousing cries from the crowd.
Settler leaders organized Wednesday’s demonstration before the car-bombing took place, wanting to protest the overall security situation.
The massive crowd filled Zion Square, spilling into surrounding streets and snarling traffic.
There was no immediate claim of responsibility for the Hadera bombing, but earlier in the day the military wing of Hamas said in a statement it would bring death to every Israeli home.
The Palestinian Authority, which denied any part in the attack, lashed out at Barak’s “false accusations” against the self-rule government.
The attack took place two days after terrorists bombed the Israeli school bus, killing two adults and wounding nine others, including five children.
Barak, who came under strong domestic pressure to abandon his policy of restraint, soon ordered the heaviest bombardment of the self-rule areas since the violence erupted.
Coming hours after the school bus attack, Israel’s missile strikes on Gaza City, killing one Palestinian and wounding scores of others, although only few of them seriously.
The battle next turned to the diplomatic front, with Egypt’s announcement Tuesday that it was recalling its ambassador to Israel in the wake of the attack on Gaza City.
The departure of Mohammed Basiouny left no Arab representatives remaining in the Jewish state.
In another sign of escalation, a senior Palestinian Authority official said Tuesday that Palestinian police can now fire on Israeli troops who shoot at Palestinian demonstrators.
Ahmed Abdel-Rahman, the Palestinian Authority’s general secretary, said the self-rule government made the decision after Israel “shot the peace process in the heart” with its missile strikes in Gaza City.
On Wednesday, Arafat’s mainstream faction vowed to avenge those strikes, issuing a statement vowing to “burn the ground beneath the feet of the Israeli occupation.”
That same day, Israeli soldiers killed four Palestinian militia members near the Jewish settlement of Morag in Gaza.
Among the dead was a militia leader, Jamal Abdel Razek, whose death may provoke a new round of Palestinian retaliation.
The army said soldiers trying to arrest Razek opened fire when he tried to crash his car through an Israeli roadblock close to the settlement.
Palestinian officials said the soldiers shot without provocation.
Mohammed Dahlan, the Palestinian security chief in Gaza, called the killings a “barbaric assassination.”
Israel’s army, which had been tracking Razek, said he was responsible for a number of shooting and bombing attacks on Israeli targets in Gaza.
Earlier this month, the army killed a Palestinian militia leader in the West Bank whom it held responsible for shooting attacks on Israeli soldiers and civilians.
That killing triggered more Palestinian violence.