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Israelis united against Palestinian violence

JERUSALEM, April 4 (JTA) — Six months into the Palestinian uprising, Israeli doves and hawks are no longer arguing about the nation’s settlement policy.

In fact, they are displaying a rare unity in the face of repeated Palestinian onslaughts.

Palestinian attacks in recent days on two settlement enclaves left two Israeli babies among the victims — one, a 10-month-old girl, dead; the other, a 15-month-old boy, gravely wounded — but the attacks did not produce the once- familiar calls from the Israeli left to dismantle the settlements.

The first attack took place March 26, when a Palestinian sniper killed Shalhevet Pass, picking her off as her father wheeled her in a stroller by a Jewish playground in the West Bank city of Hebron.

On Tuesday, in the Atzmona community in the Gaza Strip, a 15-month-old boy was seriously injured after being hit by shrapnel in a Palestinian mortar attack on the settlement. The mother also was hurt, though less seriously than her child.

On Wednesday, Israeli doctors reported an “impressive” improvement following surgery in the condition of Ariel Yered, who had arrived at a local hospital without a discernible pulse.

The Pass family at first refused to bury Shalhevet until the Israel Defense Force seized the Palestinian neighborhood of Abu Sneineh from which the sniper fired. On Sunday, following appeals from public figures including Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, the family laid Shalhevet to rest.

The initial refusal to bury Shalhevet triggered some controversy in Israel, but it was overshadowed by a deafening silence — the marked absence of debate that such attacks on the settlements once would have generated.

In times gone by, the attacks would have left Israeli doves demanding the dismantlement of isolated settlements — to avoid “provoking” Palestinian anger — and hawks urging that they be strengthened to show Palestinians that violence is futile.

Such debate now seems anachronistic.

Only a few doves still argue for withdrawing from any settlements, even the most isolated ones. They understand that appearing weak under fire would send the wrong message to the Palestinians and to the wider Arab world — that violence pays.

The hawks, barring the most extreme among them, no longer deny that outlying settlements, such as those in Gaza, would have to be removed if a peace agreement is reached.

But that presupposes a peace process. In its absence, there is little for the doves to get enthusiastic about or the hawks to argue over.

Both groups now roundly blame Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat and the Palestinian leadership for the lack of a peaceful solution or of progress toward one, and for the spiraling violence that has claimed 72 Jewish lives since late September.

This “domestic peace” among the usually raucous Israeli parties has made Sharon’s unity government much more than a marriage of political convenience.

For all the lingering unease on the left about Sharon’s hardline past, there is a spirit of unity on the fear-swept streets of Israel’s cities.

And this unity appears to be stiffening the public’s resolve in the face of daily Palestinian suicide bombings, ambushes, stonings and firefights.

Israelis are determined to go about their business despite their apprehensions, not to give the terrorists a victory by disrupting normal life in the Jewish state.

When bombs do strike and blood is spilled, there seems to be a tougher and more stoic response than in years gone by, when Israeli society was divided between “the peace camp” and “the national camp” and every Palestinian terror attack widened the gulf between the two.

By the same token, Sharon’s decisions on how to strike back at Palestinian violence — which in recent days have involved a marked military escalation on Israel’s part — have encountered little resistance in the political center, though the right is clamoring for a sterner response.

Last Friday, Defense Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer announced that Israel is ready to take off the gloves in the conflict with the Palestinians.

He also said he would consider sending Israeli troops into areas under Palestinian control “if they try to misuse territory which we agreed in advance was theirs.”

On Sunday, the IDF crossed into an area under Palestinian Authority control and abducted six members of Arafat’s Force 17 presidential guard, charging them with cooperating with Palestinian militants in planning terror attacks against Israelis.

On Tuesday, Israel released three of the men, but the point had been made. As the IDF chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Shaul Mofaz said, Israel would no longer take lines on the map into account “in our strikes against the terrorists.”

Sharon and Ben-Eliezer also have ordered the use of helicopter gunships, despite an earlier pledge from Ben-Eliezer not to deploy them.

Following a wave of bombings in Israeli cities, helicopters were used March 28 to rocket Force 17 targets in Gaza and the West Bank city Ramallah. On Monday, their rockets were used again to kill a leading Islamic Jihad militant in southern Gaza.

On Tuesday, helicopters rocketed a Palestinian naval police base, a Force 17 facility and a compound shared by several Palestinian security services, all in Gaza.

The same day, Sharon rejected an Egyptian-Jordanian proposal for resuming Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.

Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak presented the proposal Monday during a meeting with President Bush at the White House, but Sharon, who received it through unofficial channels, sees it as an attempt to renew negotiations while Palestinian violence continues — something he has repeatedly vowed not to do.

As with his other recent actions, Sharon’s rejection met with broad public support.

His basic position — that shooting must stop before talks can resume — appears to jibe with the public mood, which is determined not to reward Palestinian violence.

Palestinian strategists have focused on Israel’s unilateral withdrawal from southern Lebanon last May after years of low-level war with Hezbollah gunmen. This has led them to predict that similar Palestinian pressure — a euphemism for acts of terror — will eventually force Israel to give up all of the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Israel’s staying power in recent years has been sorely lacking — but so far, at least, Israelis are showing more steadfastness than the Palestinian strategists bargained for.

Even those Israelis who wholeheartedly supported former Prime Minister Ehud Barak’s willingness to give up land for peace are just as wholeheartedly rejecting such concessions under military pressure.

Arafat’s rejection of the Barak-Clinton peace proposals has engendered a genuine sense of national unity among Israelis.

It might dissipate if and when the diplomatic conditions change.

But for now, at least, it is palpable and real.

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