Violence returns to Mideast

This week's assassination and bus crash mark a major downturn in Israeli- Palestinian relations.

A Palestinian bus driver who took the lives of eight Israelis by running them over at a bus stop here has given Israeli Prime Minister-elect Ariel Sharon a taste of future challenges. It also highlighted a fresh escalation of Palestinian-Israeli fighting that analysts expect to be protracted.

The attack came days after the Israeli government, with the Sharon era impending, dropped a seven-year-old policy of pursuing final-status peace talks with the Palestinians. The two sides said before Israel's Feb. 6 election that they were "closer than ever before" to an agreement, and Israeli negotiators said they would only need a few more weeks to nail it down.

But listening to the description of the attack by an elderly eyewitness, Meir Chaim, the cries for revenge against Palestinians by local residents, and the response of Palestinian Authority Cabinet Secretary Ahmed Abdel Rahman that "violence begets violence," it seemed that the two peoples are actually further than ever before from finding a way out of 4-1/2 months of bloodletting.

Seven soldiers and a civilian were killed, and Israeli authorities said 20 people were wounded. The driver was identified as Khalil Abu Olbeh, a father of five from Gaza.

Local residents in this suburb of Tel Aviv were restrained by police as they chanted "Death to the Arabs" and sought to attack a construction site where they believed Palestinians worked. Nearby, a right-wing protester held up a sign. "Sharon, keep your promise. Bring security."

That is expected to be no easy task for Mr. Sharon, who was elected because of his hard-line stance toward the peace process. He has staked his career on battling terrorism, broadly defined, and is now inheriting what is perhaps the most volatile situation since the uprising broke out. Analysts say his options include tough steps against the civilian population or targeting Palestinian leaders, tactics that have already been tried and failed in halting the uprising that has claimed at least 400 lives so far, mainly Palestinian.

Prime Minister Ehud Barak was said yesterday afternoon to be holding consultations with security officials on how to respond to the attack. "It is possible further decisions will be made in the next few hours," he said.

But the danger here is that this sort of violence tends to beget more violence.

Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip are already seething in the aftermathof the latest killing of a Palestinian policeman by Israeli forces.

In the West Bank, Ilyad Abu Harb, a young Palestinian policeman, was killed by Israeli soldiers yesterday as he was driving in his car near the town of Anabta, Palestinian officials said. Army officials said soldiers spotted a car with five armed Palestinians near the Jewish settlement of Einav and opened fire.

And revenge was in the air at the Gaza Strip funeral of Massoud Ayad, an officer in an elite guard unit who was slain in a helicopter attack Tuesday as part of Israel's assassination campaign against Palestinian fighters and activists. The Israeli army claimed Mr. Ayad was setting up a Palestinian branch of the Iranian-backed Hizbullah group in the Gaza Strip

"During these times, Palestinians welcome any harm to Israelis, especially soldiers and settlers," says Ghassan Khatib, director of the Jerusalem Media and Communications Center. "Even if there was going to be an earthquake in Tel Aviv, Palestinians would be happy."

Israeli curbs on transit in the West Bank and Gaza Strip and restrictions on the entry of laborers to Israel, which were turned into an all-out ban after the attack, have generated a mixture of anger and despair.

Sharon's options when he takes office include keeping the borders between Israel and the West Bank and Gaza Strip closed on an ongoing basis and moving toward a separation between Israel and the Palestinians, "making the Palestinian population suffer" through curbs on movement and other means in the hopes this will muster pressure to stop attacks and holding Palestinian leaders "personally responsible" for violence, says Yehezkel Dror, a political scientist at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

The rationale for cracking down harder on the Palestinians is that they are no longer a partner in the bid to reach a final status agreement.

Indeed, Labor, as part of its moves to join in a national unity government, has renounced the search for a final agreement in favor of the Likud's approach of reaching interim pacts that amount to nonbelligerency agreements. "Barak was still hopeful of a general settlement, so he didn't want to overturn the apple cart. He was ready to tolerate some things. I think Sharon will be able to do more," says Mr. Dror.

Binyamin Ben-Eliezer, the communications minister, told Israel Television's Channel One: "For peace we were willing to go very far, but if they want to carry out this struggle with blood, we will do that, too."

Mr. Khatib believes the violence will continue for a long time. The Palestinian leadership, he stressed, has not yet decided how to respond to Israel's dropping of the final status talks. "It is unclear what Sharon has to offer them and how the Palestinian leadership would react. The situation is one of diplomatic stagnation a la violence. That is the worst combination and that is what might continue."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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