Israel strikes at peacemakers: provocation or mistake?

Recent hits on non-militant Palestinian leaders could erode last hopes for peace.

To some Israelis, a burly Palestinian police commander named Jibril Rajoub represents their best hope for a peaceful future. Long committed to peace negotiations, he has worked for years to prevent militant Palestinians from attacking Israel.

Late Sunday afternoon, Israeli forces fired shells at his house from a tank and a helicopter. If Mr. Rajoub hadn't been walking between rooms to get better reception on his cellphone, he later said, he might have been killed.

Coming on top of other actions that Israeli leaders have come publicly to regret, Palestinians are wondering what is going on.

Either the most sophisticated military in the Middle East is mistakenly striking at the very Palestinian leaders who have eschewed violence and maintained a willingness to negotiate with Israel - or there is no mistake at all.

"The Israeli policy is to leave no stone unturned to make sure every single Palestinian is involved [in the intifada], even when a Palestinian is reluctant to respond to their aggression," says Saman Khoury, director of the official Palestine Media Center in Ramallah.

"There is [an Israeli] plan for the Palestinians and for the [Palestinian] Authority," adds Palestinian Cabinet minister Nabeel Amro. "The Israelis are always trying to kill the leaders and cadres of the Authority."

Israel has summarily executed some 15 Palestinians it accuses of masterminding attacks on Israel, typically by using helicopter-launched missiles or gunfire in operations it says are defensive. No one of Rajoub's stature has yet been killed.

Oddly enough, yesterday morning Israel Radio reported that Israeli security officials have been discussing the possibility that PA President Yasser Arafat may choose to decamp to another country, leaving a struggle for power in his wake. One of the three men likely to take precedence in the West Bank is Rajoub, the state radio report said.

This may be wishful thinking on the Israelis' part, but the speculation demonstrates the high regard in which they hold Rajoub. The radio also reported that Mohammed Dahlan, Preventive Security Force chief in Gaza, would take over there.

In early April, as he was returning to Gaza from a meeting with Israeli officials, Israeli soldiers fired on his motorcade, wounding four bodyguards.

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon regretted the incident, but said Palestinians in the convoy had fired first and that Israeli troops acted appropriately. Mr. Dahlan, another Palestinian leader who once devoted himself to imprisoning fellow Palestinians to keep them from attacking Israel, has since boycotted meetings with Israeli officials.

Israeli officials assert that men under Dahlan's command have been involved in violence against Israel. One of his soldiers was killed in a solo attack on Israeli soldiers.

Ze'ev Schiff, an analyst for the Ha'aretz daily, struck a plaintive note in his column yesterday. "[B]y chance, or perhaps not, both Dahlan and Rajoub are convinced that they have come under intentional fire, aimed at them personally. If this is the case, then both incidents were mistakes, and we must ask why such mistakes are being made and who can guarantee that tomorrow or the next day there won't be far graver mistakes...."

The Israel Defense Forces initially said the Rajoub shelling was an error, but a regional commander later defended the action, saying Palestinian gunmen were using the house to fire on Israeli positions.

Palestinians reject this claim. The logic is that gunmen other than Rajoub's soldiers can't get near the place, and his own men would hardly draw fire to the very bedroom of their chief. He may now opt to sleep in his office, which is in a sprawling, walled compound on a Ramallah hilltop. It overlooks the site of another Israeli misstep.

One night last week, Israeli forces killed five Palestinian soldiers who were variously guarding a checkpoint, making dinner, or sleeping.

Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres said he regretted the incident, but insisted it was an honest mistake. Yesterday, a captain in the Palestinian National Security Force who said he was the commander of the dead soldiers but would not give his own name, doubted Mr. Peres's account.

"They brought in seven snipers who finished their mission in 65 seconds," he said of the Israelis, citing a military analysis. "That's a mistake?"

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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