Israel Heightens Its Retaliation As Opposition Warns of Slide to War

As Israeli opposition leader Yossi Sarid noted this week, the slide into war often happens despite the fact that no one intends or wishes it.

As the Al-Aksa Intifada entered its 12th month this week with a new and ominous surge in the level of violence, Israelis are beginning to wonder if the “smell of war,” as Sarid wrote, indeed is in the air.

Attention focused this week on Monday’s killing of Mustafa Zabri, secretary-general of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, who was killed in a pinpoint Israeli missile strike on his office in Ramallah.

Leader of a hard-line PLO faction that continues to reject a negotiated settlement with Israel, Zabri — better known as Abu Ali Mustafa — was the highest-ranking figure yet killed in Israel’s policy of targeting terrorist leaders.

Zabri’s political standing sets him apart from the other victims of Israel’s assassinations, and led Israeli pundits to dissect Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s strategy.

While some questioned the wisdom of the move, others noted that Sharon had sent a message to the Palestinians that anyone who masterminds terror attacks on Israel is not safe from the Israel Defense Force.

“Too many people have become used to a situation in which the senior Palestinian statesmen of terror sit safely in their offices while those whom they dispatch kill and are killed,” the Israeli daily Yediot Achronot wrote in an editorial. “These statesmen of terror see themselves as immune from any Israeli retaliation and punishment. The IDF’s action yesterday made it clear to them that this is not the case.”

But Yediot concluded that “in a cost-benefit analysis, the disadvantages of killing” Zabri “are liable to outweigh its benefits” because of the possibility of inflaming the Palestinian street.

In the Jerusalem Post, however, former IDF Gen. Oren Shachor wrote that taking out terrorist leaders of Zabri’s stature “is a crucial, not just a desired, tack to take.”

The remnants of the Israeli peace camp, however, harshly attacked the move.

Labor Party politician Yossi Beilin called Sharon “a Nero burning himself and Rome while he plays the fiddle,” telling the Israeli daily Ha’aretz that “Sharon is escalating the conflict with no strategy to end it.” Beilin called on Labor to leave the unity government.

Saleh Tarif, the first Arab to serve as an Israeli Cabinet minister, said that “the distance from the assassination of” Zabri “to the assassination of” Palestinian Authority President Yasser “Arafat is very small.”

Sharon sought to stop such speculation in its tracks, however, as his Inner Security Cabinet decided Monday that Israel would not take out Palestinian elected officials — a signal that Arafat was not a target.

Diplomatic and military sources told Ha’aretz that the decision to include Zabri on Israel’s “hit list” was made a few weeks ago. According to the sources, Israel warned the Palestinian Authority in recent months that Zabri was becoming involved in terror attacks, but “the Palestinians not only ignored what we said, they warned him he was in our sights.”

Escalation continued Monday night, when Israeli tanks and armored personnel carriers rolled into the Palestinian Christian town of Beit Jalla after Palestinian gunmen had raked the Jerusalem neighborhood of Gilo with fire for hours, injuring one Israeli.

The move made good on Israel’s warning several weeks ago, after a particularly vigorous day of Palestinian shooting on Gilo, that Israel would no longer allow a residential neighborhood of its capital to be turned into a shooting gallery.

Unlike in previous incursions into Palestinian-controlled territory, however, the troops seized several buildings overlooking Gilo and dug in.

U.S. officials assured Arafat that Israel would withdraw quickly, but Defense Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer said Israeli troops would remain there until the Palestinians ceased firing on Gilo.

On Tuesday evening, however, Palestinians fired a mortar into the center of Gilo, hitting a community center.

Taken together, the two Israeli actions were considered a significant escalation by many observers, and certainly by the international community.

On Tuesday, for instance, the United States called on Israel to withdraw from Beit Jalla.

Noting that Israeli troops had taken up positions next to a Beit Jalla orphanage affiliated with the Lutheran church, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher called Tuesday on both sides “to avoid any action that would jeopardize the safety of the children.”

The unspoken understanding had been that political figures on the Palestinian side were immune from assassination attempts. For instance, Marwan Barghouti, the chief of Arafat’s Fatah Party in Ramallah who has risen to prominence during the intifada, has not been targeted, despite at least circumstantial evidence that he is deeply involved in the violence as leader of Palestinian militias in the West Bank.

Zabri, who returned to Ramallah from Damascus in 1999 with Israel’s tacit consent, is more senior in the Palestinian hierarchy than Barghouti.

His killing immediately triggered two reactions that Israelis found troubling:

PFLP spokesmen vowed to take revenge against Israelis and Israeli targets everywhere. Veteran observers here recalled the organization’s spectacular attacks during the 1970s, on planes, embassies and airports around the world, as well as its more recent involvement in car bombings in Israeli cities.

Other Palestinian militant groups, including the fundamentalist Hamas and Islamic Jihad, urged unity and joint action against Israel, despite the deep ideological differences between such groups and the Marxist-secular PFLP.

On the same night as Israel entered Beit Jalla, IDF tanks were active inside Rafah on the southern edge of the Gaza Strip, leaving after they flattened several buildings used by Palestinian gunmen to shoot at Israeli troops.

The IDF’s actions came after a series of grave incidents over the weekend.

Early Saturday morning, two Palestinian gunmen shot their way into an IDF post in the Gaza Strip and killed a major and two soldiers. Seven other Israeli soldiers were wounded before one of the gunmen was himself shot dead. The other escaped, but was hunted down later.

The incident and its consequences severely shook the nation. “This shows daring on the part of the Palestinians,” an IDF general admitted. “We would not expect this sort of outcome in face-to-face fighting.”

But there was hardly time to grieve or to ponder.

That same night, a family of five was ambushed on the highway from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv. The parents, Sharon and Yaniv Ben-Shalom, and the mother’s young brother, Doron Sabari, were killed. The Ben-Shaloms’ two baby girls survived with light injuries.

The next day, a Netanya businessman, Dov Rosman, was shot dead as he did some business with a Palestinian just inside the West Bank near Tulkarm.

On Monday, a father of five, Meir Linksberg of the West Bank settlement of Itamar, was shot dead while driving on a road in the West Bank.

On Tuesday, Israeli police arrested what they said was a three-man cell on its way to carry out a terror attack in the Negev city of Beersheba.

The IDF’s actions on Monday served to boost the country’s battered morale, and some observers factored that into their analysis of the decisions.

The decision-making itself was a source of controversy, as Foreign Minister Shimon Peres, the ranking Labor Party man in the Inner Cabinet, said he had not been consulted about either the assassination of Zabri or the incursion into Beit Jalla.

On the other hand, Peres’ fellow Laborite, Ben-Eliezer, was very much involved in the decision-making, and a major partisan battle was not expected.

Indeed, some suggested that Peres was trying to distance himself from the decisions in order to preserve his prospects for launching a new round of negotiations with Arafat.

Such attempts appeared increasingly unlikely — and not just from the Israeli side. In recent days Arafat carried a gun while inspecting the rubble from one Israeli attack in the Gaza Strip, a gesture many considered his way of saying to his people that violence is legitimate.

And on Tuesday, a Palestinian poll showed that 81 percent of Palestinians support suicide bombing attacks against Israel as long as Israeli restrictions against Palestinians remain in place.

“Given the worsening of Palestinian violence — seven Israelis killed within 48 hours — and the Israeli decision to step up the strength of its military responses, reports of the continuing contacts ahead of a Peres-Arafat meeting sound like reports from another planet,” the Israeli daily Ma’ariv editorialized.

German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer, who was in the region last week, continues his behind-the-scenes efforts to set up the talks.

But even Fischer’s and Peres’ indefatigable optimism cannot obscure the fact that the week’s escalation in violence means that the chance for diplomacy is that much bleaker.

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