Israel slowly seals off Palestinians

Friday's dance-club bombing in Tel Aviv is the worst such attack in at least four years.

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Rather than hitting back quick and hard after a suicide bombing on Friday that killed 19 young Israelis at a dance club here, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is giving Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat time to implement a cease-fire.

But Mr. Sharon is also intensifying Israel's "closure" of the Palestinian territories - a move that may aggravate Palestinian frustration and undermine attempts to calm the situation.

At press time, reports indicated he was ordering strikes against two militant Arab groups, Hamas and Islamic Jihad.

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Sharon's relative patience, which contrasts with his heavy-handed responses to some previous attacks, may yet give peace a chance. It also keeps the media focused on the bombing instead of Israeli retaliation and eases the anxieties of world leaders who have been pressing him to maintain - and Mr. Arafat to adopt - a cease-fire.

By closing off the territories, however, Israel magnifies the misery of many Palestinians' day-to-day existence. Closure prevents people from working, from moving among villages and towns, and, in some cases, from getting to the hospital and keeping enough food in the house.

The strategy, explains Dore Gold, a senior adviser to Sharon, addresses "an immediate problem that overrides any other consideration: the vulnerability of our major cities to a bombing attack.

Notwithstanding this practical intent, Israeli analysts say the intensified closure is also designed to punish the Palestinians and take the steam off Israeli rage.

"The Israelis ought to [end] this closure and freeze settlements," counters Kadoura Fares, a political leader in the West Bank, indicating steps that might make it easier for Mr. Arafat to calm the situation. "If they don't do it," he warns, "there will an explosion [of Palestinian tensions] in the near future. This cease-fire will not continue."

This most recent turn in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict began with a grim explosion. On Friday evening a suicide bomber carried out the bloodiest attack on Israelis since a string of bus bombings five years ago. The victims were mainly girls and young women waiting to enter a night club on Tel Aviv's Meditteranean seafront - the epicenter of an Israel that has so far maintained some distance from the Palestinian uprising, or intifada.

That evening and early Saturday morning Palestinians evacuated buildings and areas they anticipated might be the target of Israeli reprisal raids. The Israeli Cabinet, which hasn't met on the Jewish sabbath since the Gulf War, convened to discuss what to do.

As the ministers met, Arafat announced his intention to "exert our utmost efforts to stop the bloodshed of our people and the Israeli people and to do all that is needed to achieve an immediate and unconditional, real and effective cease-fire" on Saturday afternoon. The statement was the most unequivocal call for calm so far from Arafat, and may have stilled the Israelis' inclination to avenge the bombing. There was no formal statement or address to the nation, but Israeli officials indicated that Sharon's government would wait to assess whatever concrete steps Arafat might take.

Skepticism reigns on both sides. Mr. Gold says Arafat's statement "uses rather tortured language which may be interpreted by those listening that he has only a tactical cease-fire in mind to stave off Israeli attack."

A Palestinian activist concurs that the cease-fire "is just to absorb the anger of the Israelis," says Khader Abu Abarra, a West Bank organizer for the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. "It will not be implemented, because this kind of cease-fire is diplomatic speech. The people on the ground, the [security] forces, the [Palestinian] factions are insisting that the intifada continue"

No sign of Palestinian stand-down

Thirteen representatives of Palestinian political groups, including Arafat's Fatah faction, said yesterday after a meeting in Gaza that the intifada would go on. The representatives didn't endorse militancy, but called for "popular demonstrations to underline the continuation of the intifada."

Many Palestinians, meanwhile, decry the "unilateral cease-fire" that Sharon announced two weeks ago.

Israel's copious security presence in the Palestinian territories, which mixes seige and occupation, has only worsened since the intifada began. The cease-fire has brought little or no reduction in that presence.

"If we are interested in achieving calm in this area, the Israeli occupation should withdraw," says Ismail Abu Shanab, a spokesman for Hamas, a militantly anti-Israel party whose bombers have killed dozens of Israelis. Words from Arafat, he says, will not be enough.

New conditions could allow peace

Despite the hardened positions on both sides, it seems that the dance-club bombing has created what Israeli strategic analyst Joseph Alpher calls "some tiny bit of substance." The bloody attack, which brought the number of dead on the Israeli side to 108 in this intifada, creates a perverse moment in which Arafat's call for a cease-fire is more palatable to Palestinians than it might otherwise be. Palestinians families have lost so many young men - so far more than 484 people have been killed on the Palestinian side - that the Israeli losses offer a kind of shared tragedy.

Sharon's history as an arch-defender of Israeli interests also makes this moment possible. "Only a guy like Sharon," says Mr. Alpher, a one-time adviser to former Prime Minister Ehud Barak, "could come of this and say, 'we didn't retaliate because there came about the beginning of the end of violence.' "

Finally, there is the coincidence of heightened US and European involvement and the existence of a recently issued report that offers a formula for a stand-down. A heavy Israeli retaliation to the dance-club attack would likely set back international efforts to organize a cease-fire.

Mark Heller, a researcher at the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies in Tel Aviv, says closure is intended to "intensify the message that this is what happens" in the wake of bombing attacks. At the same time, it offers some consolation to Israelis angered at brutal attacks. Sharon and his ministers "can't come out [of] the cabinet meeting and say 'we're doing nothing.' "

'Furies of the Israeli people'

Arafat may sense a moment to take a step toward peace, but Sharon's homefront is at least momentarily more unforgiving. As a hard-liner, Israeli voters expected him to get tough and deliver the security he promised. As a series of bombings has demonstrated, that hasn't happened.

On Saturday, hundreds of Israeli youths, mostly young men, clashed with police guarding a historic mosque near the scene of the dance-club blast.

Demanding "death to the Arabs," they threw rocks at the mosque while the police sought to protect the handful of Muslims inside with a great deal less violence and intensity than is used at Palestinian demonstrations.

"These are the furies of the Israeli people," said Itay Mashat, a deeply tanned boat skipper and diving instructor who lives in Tel Aviv. Sharon "failed big time," he added. "He really disappointed me."

Hila Palombo, a recent high school graduate who lives in nearby Jaffa, a community that includes Arabs and Israeli Jews, was dismayed by the dance-club carnage.

"We wan't negotiations; we want the peace process," she said. Nonetheless, even she says that Sharon must retaliate in the face of such attacks by Palestinians. "When they cross the line, we can't help it."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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