Israel stokes a cooling conflict

An Israeli missile attack in the Gaza Strip Monday killed 12 Palestinians and wounded at least 100.

Once again, an outburst of violence has ended a period of relative calm in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Palestinian militants are vowing to resume suicide bombings inside Israel, following an Israeli raid in the southern Gaza Strip early Monday morning that killed at least 12 Palestinians. Hospital officials say all of the dead were civilians, but Israeli officials insist that most of the dead were gunmen.

The raid, which occurred in a part of Khan Younis, a densely populated area abutting Israeli settlements and military outposts, may add credibility to assertions by Palestinians and others that Israel intentionally stokes the conflict.

This theory relies on the argument that Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is pursuing a military solution to the conflict and is uninterested in peace negotiations, charges he periodically denies. His critics counter that keeping the conflict bubbling allows Mr. Sharon to further Israel's reoccupation of the Palestinian territories and promote Jewish settlement of those lands.

Lt. Col. Olivier Rafovitch, a spokesman for the Israel Defense Forces, says Monday's raid was conducted in response to 10 days of rifle, grenade, and mortar attacks on nearby Israeli targets. Any appearance of calm, he adds, is no thanks to the Palestinians. "It's relatively quiet because we work a lot, we arrest a lot of people."

Among the Palestinians, he says, "the intention is still there" to attack Israel.

But in an interview broadcast on Israeli television over the weekend, Israel's head of military intelligence, Maj. Gen. Aharon Farkash, said the main Palestinian political faction, Fatah, was abstaining from terrorist attacks inside Israel and that officials of the Palestinian Authority were attempting to persuade militant Palestinian groups to do the same.

Monday's attack appeared to extinguish this initiative's chances for success.

At a mass funeral for those killed in the raid, loudspeakers broadcast a pledge from the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, a militant offshoot of Fatah, "to continue the fight and pursue martyrdom operations inside the Israeli entity."

"The killing of civilians must be punished by the killing of civilians," Mahmoud al-Zahar, a leader of the Islamic Resistance Movement, or Hamas, told the Reuters news agency.

Such statements, along with an outpouring of rage and frustration, are especially common when Israeli forces kill Palestinian civilians. Although the details remained unclear at press time, reports indicated that most of Monday's victims were killed by a missile launched from an Israeli helicopter.

Israeli officials said their tanks had come under fire from Palestinian gunmen, but accounts from the scene indicated that the missile struck a crowd of people who had gathered to watch the Israelis withdraw after their incursion.

The raid is not the first occasion when an Israeli military strike has derailed those working on a peaceful initiative.

On July 22, an Israeli Air Force attack on a Gaza City apartment building killed a top Hamas leader wanted by Israel, and 13 civilians. The strike undid a diplomatic attempt to get Palestinian groups to agree to cease attacks against Israeli civilians inside Israel.

Hamas's retaliation for the assassination and the civilian deaths included a suicide bombing in Tel Aviv that killed six Israelis last month. Naomi Chazan, a member of the Israeli parliament who has often criticized the prime minister, says the timing of Monday's attack is connected to the rising global preoccupation with the possibility of a US war against Iraq.

The Israeli government, she says, has "used a window opened by the Iraqi issue and is taking advantage of it to do things it would not have been able to do otherwise."

The problem, she adds, is that Sharon and Defense Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer may not realize that "the US has zero patience for anything that diverts attention from what's most important to the US right now," meaning Iraq.

Late last month, President Bush and other US officials demanded that Sharon halt a siege of Arafat's compound because the Israeli actions were complicating US attempts to win UN and Arab endorsement for a tough line against Iraq.

Ali Jarbawi, who teaches political science at Bir Zeit University in the West Bank, also sees an Iraq link, but reads Israeli intentions differently. "Sharon and the Israeli government, now that they have their hands tied because of the Americans and [their concerns over Iraq] ... want to provoke the Palestinians into attacking."

At the very least, the Israeli strike threatens to stifle a growing sense among many mainstream Palestinians that suicide bombing and other forms of violence against civilians are ineffective and should no longer be tolerated.

Senior officials of Fatah have said as much publicly. A senior Palestinian security official, speaking on condition of anonymity, told the Monitor last week that Mr. Arafat late last month instructed Hamas and another militant group, Islamic Jihad, to halt attacks on civilians.

"When something like this happens in Khan Younis," says Mr. Jarbawi, "how can [Arafat] press Hamas or the others not do anything? He can't. The vicious circle is going on and I think it is being fueled by Israel."

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