Israelis weigh response to attacks

A fuel depot was attacked yesterday in the latest exchange between Israel and the Palestinians.

Israelis who thought it was safe to go out again are starting to reassess the situation. After a string of violent incidents, Israelis are confronting a renewed lack of personal security, and wondering whether military action might halt future Palestinian attacks – or simply fuel the fires of conflict.

Yesterday, a bomb exploded at the country's largest fuel depot in Tel Aviv, ripping through part of a truck and spilling fuel onto the tarmac before being extinguished, without casualties. The blast came the morning after a suicide bombing in nearby Rishon LeZion at an outdoor pedestrian mall used by the elderly to play chess. That attack killed two Israelis, an elderly man and a boy, and wounded nearly 40 people.

The bloodshed comes two weeks after a suicide attack against a pool hall in Rishon LeZion that killed 15 people. Any illusions that last month's Operation Defensive Shield army offensive in the West Bank was a panacea for Palestinian attacks have been destroyed by the Rishon LeZion attack, and by an announcement this week by security officials that they had foiled a plot to blow up the twin Azrieli towers in Tel Aviv.

'Only the beginning'

Defensive Shield was launched on March 29 officially to "destroy the terrorist infrastructure" in the West Bank, after a spate of devastating suicide bombings, including one that killed 29 people celebrating a traditional Passover Seder in Netanya. It culminated in bitter fighting between Israeli forces and Palestinian militants at the Jenin refugee camp, and a series of reported abuses by the Israeli army that attracted world criticism.

Amid a reserve call up and sense of national emergency, the government encouraged the public to view the operation as a decisive turning point.

But Israeli military analysts say Operation Defensive Shield now looks like it was only just the beginning. "The Palestinians can expect recurrent and regular operations by the army in their cities," wrote Zeev Schiff in the daily newspaper Ha'aretz yesterday.

"Some Palestinian areas will at times face penetrations of large forces to arrest suspects. These types of operations necessitate a large use of force, which means the accompanying pictures of destruction will recur."

The intensity of Palestinian attacks so soon after Defensive Shield was completed has prompted differing explanations on the right and left.

"[Solely] military instruments cannot stop terror and confrontation between us and the Palestinians," said Roman Bronfman, a member of the Knesset for the Democratic Choice Party. "You need some diplomatic horizon for both sides. Until Israeli society and government present a political solution, terrorism will continue."

Yuval Steinitz, a member of the Knesset from Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's Likud party, says: "In order to eliminate terrorism completely, we should proceed to other sites in the West Bank, to Jericho and to Hebron and to deepen the military action and to empty the territories of weapons, explosives, and activists and the main engine of terrorism, Yasser Arafat and the Palestinian Authority [PA]. Of course, he should be expelled."

The PA condemned the attack in Rishon LeZion, but, at the same time, the al-Aqsa militia of Mr. Arafat's Fatah movement took responsibility and said it came as revenge for Israel's killing earlier Wednesday of a senior militia leader, Mahmoud Titi. Mr. Titi, called a "senior terrorist" by Israel, recently told journalists of intentions to attack Israeli cinemas and restaurants.

West Bank security is tightened

In an effort to prevent such attacks, Israeli authorities have tightened security measures in the West Bank, initiating a new permit requirement for Palestinians.

Israel now requires Palestinians, for the first time since 1967, to carry Israeli permits to move between eight different sections of the West Bank.

The new regulation makes the nearly 2 million people in the West Bank dependent on the goodwill of the Israeli authorities for getting to their work places, their relatives, and even to take small trips between suburbs and a city.

Israeli officials say, however, that the passes will actually make it easier for those bearing them to move past checkpoints without being turned back by Israeli soldiers.

The army answer

South Africa's top diplomat in the West Bank, Hanlie Booysen, likened the permit requirement this week to the pass system and segregated ethnic homelands enforced under apartheid. "A Bantustan [homeland] situation has been going on for a while in the West Bank, with Palestinian pockets of control," she said. "If the West Bank is divided into eight areas, than one thinks in terms of Bantustans."

Jeff Halper, head of the Israel Coalition against Home Demolitions, says the measure is part of a war he says Israel is waging against the emergence of a viable Palestinian state. "The war is waged partly through military attack, partly by undermining Palestinian civil society, and economy and partly by recarving the West Bank," he says.

A former Israeli security official who requested anonymity says: "The reason this has happened is because of the terror attacks. I told the Palestinians that if the attacks didn't stop, it would end up with the Israeli army going inside their areas, and the Palestinian Authority losing its role in civilian life. It is hopeless that Arafat will ever deliver security, which means Israel will continue to control the area, the army will keep doing small operations, and the military closure of cities will be an ongoing one."

"With this situation going to continue for a long time, you have to give people some means of movement because you don't want to destroy economic and social life," says the former official. Thus it was decided to use permits, he explains, although few will be granted, at least initially.

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