Israel slowly seals off Palestinians
Friday's dance-club bombing in Tel Aviv is the worst such attack in at least four years.
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.Skip to next paragraph
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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.
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