Israelis reinterpret a Hebron raid

An ambush Friday is being seen today as aimed at Israel's military, not as a terror act against civilians.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Their lips moving in silent prayer and grief, hundreds of Israelis wound their way through the tree-lined roads of Givat Shaul cemetery Sunday to bury three of the 12 men killed in Friday's attack in Hebron by Islamic Jihad.

The bodies, accompanied by soldiers, traveled in army trucks trailing a stream of mourners in their wake, many crowding close enough to press a hand against the khaki metal in a final gesture of farewell.

The honors given these guards from the Kiryat Arba settlement - the only civilians killed - seemed fitting as Israelis reevaluated the ambush yesterday, seeing it less as a slaughter of innocents and more as a military lapse.

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The attack is unlikely to change Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's electoral or military strategy, analysts say.

Israel is already reoccupying Palestinian areas within Hebron and has demolished houses it says are linked to the perpetrators of the attack. For those at the funeral, these steps are a start.

"The answer isn't to answer with vengeance, but with life - Jewish life," says Yitzak, who will not give his family name but says he is the cousin of one of the three guards. The people of Kiryat Arba, he explains, must respond by extending Jewish settlement into Hebron; some settlers have already created an outpost in the alley where the men fell.

Hebron is where the core hatreds and bitterness of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict fester. Home to the Tomb of the Patriarchs, a shrine holy to the three monotheistic religions, it is a city of around 130,000 Palestinians surrounding 450 Jewish settlers living in a few enclaves in its Israeli-controlled center.

Just a half-mile away, thousands of Israelis live in the Kiryat Arba settlement and can easily walk the short distance to the Tomb. Some were on their way home on Friday when militants attacked. The Palestinian militant group Islamic Jihad took responsibility, claiming that it was meant to avenge the death of one of their leaders killed by Israeli troops last week.

Mr. Sharon, visiting Hebron yesterday, told Israeli army radio that Israel would need to expand its territory in Hebron to ensure the settlers' safety.

This would be done by providing them with "territorial continuity" - a corridor of land, controlled by Israel, extending from Kiryat Arba on the city's eastern edge to the Jewish enclaves in Hebron's center.

"We need a new security area, that's clear," says Zvi Katzover, Kiryat Arba's head of security, standing in the early winter sun at the cemetery. "For a start that means clearing 10 [Palestinian] homes along that road to provide security." He added that dozens of youths had already begun setting up an outpost - a basis for a future settlement.

As details about the clash filter out, it seems less like a "Sabbath massacre," as it was described initially, and more like a military failure for the Israelis. "It wasn't a massacre, it was a battle," Matan Vilnai, a former general and a leading member of the opposition Labor Party, told reporters.

The other nine dead were soldiers and police, including the most senior army officer killed during 26 months of open conflict with the Palestinians.

"It's a defeat in a battle - one that should have been avoided," says Gerald Steinberg, a political science professor at Bar-Ilan University outside Tel Aviv. Israeli media reported yesterday that the Palestinian gunmen targeted the soldiers and policemen who were escorting the settlers, not the settlers themselves.

Israelis were comparing the attack to two previous events in which Israeli soldiers suffered high casualties: a lone sniper's March 2002 attack on an Israeli military checkpoint in the West Bank, in which seven soldiers and three civilians were killed, and an ambush of Israeli forces in the Jenin refugee camp this past April. Thirteen soldiers died after they were lured into a booby-trapped alleyway.

In the wake of this most recent attack, Sharon's political rival is talking tough. Foreign Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is insisting that Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat be expelled, but that might disrupt US plans to pressure Iraq to disarm. Sharon is said to be unwilling to jeopardize relations with the US, in part because Israel would gain from the ousting of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.

Also, many Israelis say that Sharon's use of military might and his refusal to negotiate until there is peace are effective - or at least constitute the least bad alternative under the circumstances. "In a war you make mistakes," says Mr. Steinberg, "but the overall trend illustrates that Sharon's strategy has been working: The level of Palestinian capability has gone down very significantly."

Many Israelis consider the settlers of Hebron to be extremists and say an attack against them is not the same as one that targets people in an Israeli city.

"It is different from a bus bombing or some other kind of attack," says Steinberg. Adds Mark Heller, of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies in Tel Aviv: "People subconsciously make that distinction although no one likes to come out and admit it publicly."

Staff writer Cameron W. Barr contributed to this story.

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