Arms trump words in Mideast

A suicide bomber attacked a bus in Israel Sunday, killing at least nine people.

As the violence intensifies once again – with Israeli tanks rumbling through Palestinian cities and Palestinians killing themselves in order to kill Israelis – even the experts are confounded over where the conflict is heading.

"I don't know. I really don't know," says Anat Kurtz, an Israeli specialist on low-intensity conflict at Tel Aviv University. "I'm afraid the situation will go on for quite a while until there is some change in the Israeli mind-set or the Palestinian mind-set or the global mind-set." There is little sign of any of that.

"I see no change evolving," Ms. Kurtz concludes.

So this bitter, bloody fight grinds on. Sunday, a Palestinian suicide bomber attacked a bus in northern Israel, killing at least nine people. A few hours later, a Palestinian armed with a pistol opened fire on an Israeli truck in East Jerusalem. Two people and the gunman died in the ensuing firefight.

At the same time, Israeli forces are operating with renewed vigor in the northern West Bank city of Nablus. Troops moved through the densely built casbah, or old city, over the weekend, killing at least three Palestinians and detaining dozens.

In some ways these events are part of a cycle of vengeance. The Israelis have reoccupied Nablus – the scene of deadly house-to-house fighting in April that killed scores of Palestinians – in part because of a bombing that killed seven people, including five American citizens, at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem last week. That attack, along with Sunday's bus bombing, were in retaliation for Israel's assassination of a Palestinian militant in Gaza on July 22.

The militant, Salah Shehadeh, was a leading member of the Islamic Resistance Movement. Members of the organization, known as Hamas, immediately made it clear that retaliation would follow.

While each side denies vengeful motives, there is little doubt that the violence perpetuates itself. The situation seems so hopeless that even the president of the United States is asking for help. "I call upon all nations to do everything they can to stop these terrorist killers," President Bush said Sunday, referring to Palestinian militants.

On the political front, diplomats and officials will again have to wait out the bloodletting. A week ago, a Western diplomat all but predicted the events of recent days. "Now we have to get past Hamas's revenge," he said.

Sunday the Israeli government said it would suspend talks with Palestinian officials over ways to ease the suffering of Palestinian civilians, hundreds of the thousands of whom must cope with Israeli-imposed curfews and other limitations on their lives and livelihoods.

Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres says he is continuing his diplomatic efforts, and a few leading Israelis and Palestinians are engaged in unofficial talks, but many analysts say this activity does not add up to much. At most, says Shlomo Brom, a retired Israeli general with the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies in Tel Aviv, it is "a beginning."

"The Israeli public has lost any trust in the present Palestinian leadership," he adds. As a result the position of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is secure, since Israelis "will continue to vote for the sheriff, namely Sharon, as long as they believe there is no hope."

Hope might come in the form of a change of leaders on the Palestinian side, something Mr. Bush demanded in June. Bush's stance has trimmed the ability of US diplomats to act as intermediaries, leaving the task of peacemaking mainly to European officials, who say they are dispirited by both the situation and American reticence.

In recent weeks Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat has shuffled his Cabinet to include some reform-minded ministers, but many observers view these efforts with skepticism. Mr. Arafat's own position seems secure, in part because he has used the clamor for reform to justify the purging of politically powerful Palestinians in favor of those loyal to him.

The PA condemned the bus attack in a statement Sunday that also blamed Israel's "mass detentions, repressive measures, and home demolitions" for furthering the cycle of violence.

Thus the two leaders soldier on and the conflict continues. Sharon seems able to sidestep the criticism that his brand of heavy-handed militarism is ultimately futile. As Kurtz puts it: "The government has [every] reason to reconsider its strategy, because it doesn't work. It doesn't get us anywhere in terms of the political horizon and it has had no success in terms of stopping the violence and the scope of terrorism, so what's the use?"

Sharon insists he is interested in achieving a political compromise, but most observers agree that his terms would be unacceptable to the Palestinians.

Says Brom, referring to the government: "They think that if we continue our fighting and we stand fast, eventually the Palestinians will give up most ... or some of their demands and then a political solution will be possible."

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