JERUSALEM, March 28 (JTA) Confronted by a series of Palestinian terrorist attacks this week, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has ordered a retaliation, but it remains unclear whether he will take further steps.
Under fierce domestic pressure to abandon his policy of restraint after the Palestinian attacks, Sharon ordered the Israel Defense Force to launch strikes Wednesday night on targets in the West Bank city of Ramallah and in the Gaza Strip.
In Ramallah, the Israeli military struck at the headquarters of Force 17, the personal bodyguards of Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat whom Israel has repeatedly accused of coordinating terror attacks against Israel with Palestinian militant groups.
Palestinian officials evacuated the headquarters before the strike, saying Israel had warned them to leave. Israel denied that it gave any advance warning.
Israel’s strikes on the Palestinian targets were similar to the tactics of Sharon’s predecessor, Ehud Barak.
Sharon may yet order further actions, particularly since his critics are likely to charge that Israeli strikes on buildings are not a commensurate response to Palestinian terror attacks on Israeli civilians.
Terrorist bombers struck inside Israel three times this week, and three other bombing attempts were thwarted before the devices could be detonated.
Israeli officials viewed the attacks as a deliberate Palestinian attempt to provoke Sharon into a harsh response.
Until Wednesday night, Sharon had avoided retaliating, concerned about the repercussions on a midweek Arab summit in Jordan, where Arab leaders convened to show support for the Palestinian uprising.
The strikes on Ramallah and Gaza came shortly after the summit ended.
Sharon finds himself in a bind over whether to order a stronger response.
If he does, he will play into the hands of the Arab world, which harking back to Sharon’s direction of the 1982 war in Lebanon long has branded him a war criminal.
If he does not, however, Sharon risks incurring the wrath of many Israelis.
The calls for Sharon to take action are particularly strong in Hebron, where Palestinian snipers killed a 10-month-old Jewish girl on Monday.
Jewish settlers burned cars in the Palestinian-controlled section of Hebron on Tuesday night. When the army prevented them from entering Palestinian-ruled areas of the city on Wednesday, the settlers set fire to Palestinian buildings in parts of Hebron under Israeli rule.
There have been seven bombings within Israel since Sharon took office Feb. 6 and several foiled terrorist attacks.
Last week, pundits said Sharon was waiting until after his inaugural Washington trip to unveil an iron fist. This week, they credited the restraint to the Arab summit.
Some are questioning the wisdom of basing an Israeli response on the diplomatic calendar, which always has some imminent event that could justify Israeli restraint.
Senior sources in Sharon’s office, however, said Israel would not play into the Palestinians’ hands.
With each new terror attack, pressure increased on Sharon to order a response.
Sharon overwhelmingly defeated Barak in February elections by promising to restore security and deal differently with Palestinian violence.
But it is not clear what new steps Sharon should take.
“The problem is not simple,” Foreign Minister Shimon Peres told Israel Radio on Wednesday. “There is no easy solution.”
Peres spoke after a suicide bomber killed himself and two Israeli teen- agers by detonating a nail bomb among a group of Israeli students waiting in the Tel Aviv suburb of Kfar Saba for their ride to school.
The boys killed in the blast were identified as Eliran Rosenberg, 16, and Naftali Landskoren, 14. Four other teen-agers were wounded, one of them critically.
Hamas claimed responsibility, and said it had seven more suicide bombers ready to carry out attacks.
Shortly before Wednesday’s attack, two bombs were discovered in the open-air markets of Netanya and Petach Tikva. The devices were exploded safely.
On Monday night, a bomb was discovered near a falafel stand in Petach Tikva. That device, too, was safely detonated.
On Tuesday, there were two bomb attacks in Jerusalem.
In the first bombing, an explosives-packed car blew up in the morning near a mall in the neighborhood of Talpiot.
The driver of a passing bus was moderately hurt, and four other people sustained light injuries.
The car, which had been illegally parked, had been stolen from the center of the country several weeks ago. Islamic Jihad militants claimed responsibility for the attack.
In the second attack, about five hours later, a suicide bomber wearing a belt of nail-studded explosives blew himself up beside a bus at the busy French Hill intersection, wounding at least 30 people, one of them critically.
Witnesses said the bomber boarded the bus but got off quickly when other passengers became suspicious.
The two attacks came as tensions ran high after the murder a day earlier of the baby girl in Hebron.
Shalhevet Pass was with her parents when snipers opened fire on Hebron’s Avraham Avinu enclave from the Palestinian neighborhood of Abu Sneineh, which overlooks the Jewish neighborhood.
Shalhevet, who was shot in the head, is the youngest victim of the six- month-old Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Her father, Yitzhak, also was injured.
Jewish residents of Hebron demanded that the army take control of Abu Sneineh. Several groups of Jewish settlers entered the area Tuesday and damaged Palestinian property.
Immediately after Shalhevet’s murder, Sharon and Defense Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer ordered that Hebron be sealed off and a curfew imposed on Abu Sneineh. The Israel Defense Force responded by firing with tanks and machine guns at the Palestinian neighborhood, and army officials advised Palestinians living there to evacuate their homes pending a further Israeli response.
Tuesday’s suicide bombing in French Hill occurred as Sharon was meeting with security officials to discuss how to respond to the earlier bombing and Shalhevet’s murder.
At the Arab summit in Amman, Arafat said the Palestinians oppose terrorism and violence though he characterized military and economic measures Israel has taken in response to Palestinian attacks as “terrorism” and the “utmost forms of violence.”
Arafat appealed to Arab leaders to provide financial support so the Palestinians can continue their struggle against Israel.
U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, who spoke Tuesday at the summit, said the international community has every right to criticize Israel for occupying Arab land and for its “excessively harsh response” to the Palestinian uprising.
Annan adopted a more balanced approach later in his speech, speaking of the need to reach a peace agreement that would respond “both to the legitimate desire of the Palestinians for national independence, and to the legitimate claims of the Israelis for recognition and security.”
Jordan’s King Abdullah told the summit the Arab world should support the Palestinians against Israel.
Syrian President Bashar Assad said Israelis who voted for Sharon in February were “more racist than the Nazis.”
Assad also urged the United Nations to renew a now-revoked resolution equating Zionism with racism.
On Wednesday, the summit’s final day, the Arab leaders pledged to send $240 million in aid to the Palestinian Authority over the next six months and chided Israel for its “retreat” from the principles of the Middle East peace process launched in Madrid in 1991.
In a communique, the leaders also demanded that Israeli “war criminals” be brought to trial.