Israelis expect action as Sharon returns from D.C.


JERUSALEM, March 20 (JTA) — Israel seemed to be holding its breath this week in the wake of three Palestinian attacks.

The reaction wasn’t born of fear, but rather a sense that the moment of reckoning is at hand as Prime Minister Ariel Sharon returns from his first trip to Washington.

Israel didn’t respond to any of this week’s three serious attacks — on orders, according to reliable sources, from Sharon himself, who was eager to belie his warmonger image when meeting with President Bush and other U.S. officials.

It’s hard to call the six weeks since Sharon’s election a honeymoon — the Palestinians have done their best to fulfill their pledge to greet him with violence — but the sense here is that this was about as warm a reception as Sharon is going to get.

The premier was due back in Israel by the weekend, amid speculation that Israel’s pent-up fury would then be unleashed.

If reprisals do indeed occur, they would be the first manifestation of a toughened reprisal policy under the new government.

If they do not, the inaction may be a clue of Sharon’s intentions — and, perhaps, of how he has been impacted by the Bush administration’s calls for restraint.

The first of this week’s attacks took place at Kibbutz Manara on the Israeli-Lebanese border.

Several days after the man responsible for security on the kibbutz, Yitzhak Kvartatz, disappeared, he was found murdered in a nearby riverbed. Manara’s arsenal, which Kvartatz oversaw, had been ransacked — and some 60 rifles and handguns stolen.

The Lebanon border fence, just yards away, was not cut, leading investigators to assume that Palestinian or Israeli Arab terrorists were responsible for the attack.

The second attack came Sunday night, when Palestinian militants fired three mortar bombs from the Gaza Strip into Israel in what Israeli security forces described as a grave escalation of the conflict.

The attack marked the first time Palestinians had fired from Gaza into Israel proper — as opposed to Israeli settlements within Gaza — since the violence began nearly six months ago.

An Israeli reserve soldier was lightly wounded by the shells, which landed in an army base next to Kibbutz Nahal Oz.

Israel Defense Force sources said the shells came from places in or near Palestinian Authority police installations. The implication is that the shells could not have been fired without the connivance, or at least deliberate indifference, of the Palestinian police — who were ordered an hour before the attack to take cover for fear of Israeli retaliation.

The third attack came the following morning, when an Israeli driver was killed in a drive-by shooting near Bethlehem. After being shot Monday, 58-year-old Baruch Cohen, a resident of the West Bank settlement of Efrat, lost control of his car and hit an oncoming truck.

Israeli officials believe the assailants, who carried out the attack in broad daylight, escaped to Bethlehem, passing at least two Palestinian Authority roadblocks along the way.

As with the Gaza mortar attack, Israeli officials said the shooting reeked of P.A. complicity.

Defense Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer said the “finger of guilt” points directly at Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat.

The IDF responded Monday by reimposing a blockade around Bethlehem. The blockade had just been lifted as part of Sharon’s effort to ease the plight of the Palestinian population.

Avihu Cohen, son of the drive-by shooting victim, blasted the decision to lift the blockade.

“Everyone saw that they lifted the blockade of Bethlehem at midnight. At 5:45” in the morning, “my father was murdered. At 8:00, or close to it, they renewed the blockade. Everyone can draw their own conclusions and speculate what would have happened if the blockade had not been removed,” Cohen told Israel’s Army Radio.

On Tuesday, however, the blockade was eased once again, with roads to the south and east of the city opened by the army.

In this case, as in the shelling of Nahal Oz, the prime minister rejected urgent recommendations for reprisals against Palestinian military targets.

Both Sharon in the United States and Foreign Minister Shimon Peres in Jerusalem cited these incidents as proof of Israeli claims that the P.A., through its military and paramilitary units, is not just indirectly responsible but directly involved in attacks on Israelis.

Sharon promised in his election campaign to provide greater security for Israel. He will achieve this, he has said, by striking at the P.A. and its military and paramilitary units rather than by collective acts that hurt the entire Palestinian population.

This explains Sharon’s easing of the blockades imposed on much of the Palestinian territory in recent weeks, which had drawn strong condemnation from the international community and from Western media, especially in Europe.

Aides stressed that the sieges had been in place when Sharon took the reins of power, and it was Sharon who gave orders to ease them.

Though the Palestinians and the international community had demanded that Israel take the first step in reducing the cycle of antagonism, however, the Israeli move was met not with Palestinian goodwill but with a new wave of violence.

Sharon’s aides emphasized the prime minister’s sympathy for ordinary Palestinians, who have been rendered increasingly destitute by the half year of violence. They also insist that Sharon has new, untried tactical ideas to use against terror.

Having swept Sharon into power, the Israeli public is waiting eagerly for the realization of his promise of greater security.

His honeymoon period over with his inaugural Washington visit under his belt, Sharon now faces his first real test as prime minister.

Some observers and leftist opposition legislators say Sharon inevitably will fail because there are no military ways to quell the terror.

But most Israelis seem reluctant to accept so bleak an analysis.

After decades spent fighting Palestinian terror, this is Sharon’s chance, they say, to prove that he can do better than the man he replaced as prime minister.

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