As tanks roll, Israeli aims unclear

Israeli tanks entered a Palestinian city early yesterday, destroying the police headquarters and other buildings.

Israel's first military incursion into the heart of a Palestinian-ruled city raises the Mideast conflict to a new level. But it also leaves in its wake doubts in Israel over what, if anything, was achieved.

"The government was trying to signal how vulnerable the Palestinian Authority is, and that the army is undeterred by the question of entering PA areas, and that the Palestinians have no real sanctuary - that the army can get them wherever they are by air and land," said Menachem Shalev, political correspondent for Ma'ariv daily newspaper.

The specter of columns of tanks plowing through a West Bank city was the most formidable display of Israel's ground forces since Palestinians gained self-rule in 1994. It also underscores the difficulties Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's government is having in responding to the continuation of Palestinian suicide attacks, the most recent of which occurred Sunday night near Haifa, wounding 15 people.

Yesterday's raid, described as a warning to the Palestinian Authority to "stop the terrorism," did not result in any fatalities. Four Palestinian policemen were wounded during the incursion, which ended with a pullout of all the Israeli troops. The PA termed it a "declaration of war" and called on the UN security council to provide Palestinians with protection from the Israeli army.

As soon as the dust settled yesterday, leading Israeli analysts began to question how destroying a few empty buildings could possibly stop the onslaught of suicide bombings by Hamas and Islamic Jihad that Israel has been facing, and for which it blames the PA for not cracking down on militants.

"People will now be asking 'What good did this achieve? Did the Palestinians gain from it? Did it achieve the opposite of what was intended?' They have made a big bang here that ended with a whimper." says Mr. Shalev.

In the attack near Haifa on Sunday evening, the bomber, Mohammed Mahmoud Nasser, had been a policeman in Jenin before quitting his post and joining the Islamic Jihad.

Israeli army chief of staff Shaul Mofaz said yesterday that Jenin was targeted because it had become a "city of bombers" from Islamic Jihad. Israeli officials say nine suicide attacks emanated from Jenin since the start of the uprising.

Dore Gold, an adviser to Mr. Sharon, told Reuters: "This was not an act of revenge. This was an act of accountability. Israel has sent a signal to the PA: Stop the terrorism, stop it now."

But Palestinians who gathered around what until Monday night was a plaza, said the raid would have no deterrent effect at all. Some policemen said it would simply fuel further violence.

"This was our square until last night," said Palestinian police corporal Nimr Jaradat, pointing around him to rubble and the remnants of an 87-by-55-yard complex that was largely destroyed. A mosque that had been used by the 300 policemen who slept in the facility is now a heap of rubble.

According to Mr. Jaradat, two Israeli bulldozers, accompanied by 10 tanks, ploughed into the police complex as helicopters swirled overhead. He and the other police, anticipating an Israeli military action, had fled before the tanks arrived, leveling the police headquarters. Eyewitnesses said the Israelis remained inside their vehicles throughout the raid.

"Of course, I ran. I have nothing with which to combat tanks and helicopters," Jaradat said.

"This is a savage way of acting, barbaric," said Burhan Mahameed, a local resident. These people do not seek peace. On the contrary, they always escalate the situation."

Asked whether he expects further suicide attacks, Mahameed responded: "What do you expect? We hate these attacks, but you cannot judge someone who wants to avenge his relatives, his brother, his mother."

Joseph Alpher, former deputy director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies, voiced doubts about the incursion: "The question about all of this is: Does it have a deterrent effect on the Palestinians? I don't think so. It doesn't achieve a thing, because it is not part of a clear, consistent strategy for ending this [conflict]. Sharon does not have such a strategy, whether it is political or military."

Mr. Alpher noted that in several recent actions, there have been no Palestinian fatalities, reflecting, he says, "a strong consciousness that fighting the public relations war is an important part of this war."

In the Jerusalem area, three Palestinians and one Israeli were reported wounded during shooting exchanges between the Palestinian town of Beit Jala and the Jewish settlement of Gilo. Jerusalem Mayor Ehud Olmert said the army might soon launch an incursion into Beit Jala, which neighbors Bethlehem. "It is very possible we will be compelled to carry out a land operation, and I expect that the response will be similar to that which was carried out in Jenin - a broad, massive operation, with consequences in Bethlehem too," he told Army Radio.

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