A conflict escalates toward war

Israeli gunships retaliated yesterday after Palestinians killed two Israeli soldiers.

Israelis and Palestinians are confronting the grim realization that their conflict is escalating.

Retaliating for the death of two of their soldiers, Israeli forces yesterday rocketed Palestinian targets including sites near the Gaza headquarters of Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat.

Despite the concerted efforts of international mediators, recent events have made it clear that the strife between the two sides is growing more militarized and unpredictable.

The conflict between Israel and the Palestinians increasingly looks like a contest in which a sophisticated military is facing both popular insurrection and the attacks of guerrilla forces.

Palestinian spokeswoman Hanan Ashrawi told British television yesterday that "the whole world has to tell Israel to specialist at the US Institute of Peace in Washington.

The explosion of violence yesterday came at a moment when US officials had believed that the wobbly Middle East peace process was beginning to right itself.

Clinton had dispatched CIA Director George Tenet to the region in an effort to persuade both sides to return to the bargaining table.

But the brutal killing of at least two Israeli soldiers by a Palestinian mob - and the retaliatory fire from Israeli helicopter gunships - dropped a match on the conflict's still-smoldering ashes.

US officials were forced to move quickly in an attempt to calm the situation. Mr. Tenet huddled with Arafat for hours, and Clinton talked with the Palestinian leader by phone from his home in Chappaqua, N.Y.

"The president understands how serious this situation is, and we are doing everything in our power to prevent a further escalation," said National Security Council spokesman P.J. Crowley.

Explosion shocks US

For the US, the apparent terrorist attack on the USS Cole came as an even greater shock than the deteriorating situation in Israel. US military forces in the field have not been subject to such violence since a truck bomb killed 19 US troops in their apartment near Dhahran, Saudi Arabia in 1996.

At time of writing, the circumstances surrounding the Cole explosion remained unclear. There were reports that a small boat was seen approaching the modern Arleigh Burke-class Navy vessel as it refueled in Aden, Yemen. Damage was considerable, and some reports said crew members were struggling to keep the ship afloat.

It is possible that an accident caused the Cole's explosion. However, "obviously given the circumstances, including eyewitness accounts, we are investigating the possibility this was a terrorist attack," said Mr. Crowley.

The terrorist attack, if that is what it was, could hardly have come in a more symbolic place. Aden has been used by Western naval vessels as a rest and restocking spot since 1800, when the British established a garrison there. By the late19th-century, the Royal Navy was so dependent on Aden as a way station to India that it was called the "Coalhole of the East."

Yet the long tradition of Yemen's rulers cooperating with Western militaries was not always popular with the surrounding population. Today, although US Navy ships routinely make port there, "there is a lot of anti-American fervor in Yemen," says Stanley Bedlington, a former senior analyst in the CIA's counterterrorist center.

There are two terror groups based in Yemen, according to Mr. Bedlington - the Yemen Islamic Jihad, and the Islamic Army of Yemen. Both have ties to the Afghanistan-based Osama bin Laden, who has long been fingered as a terrorist mastermind by US officials. As recently as two years ago, a bus full of Western tourists in Yemen was taken hostage by terrorists. Four were killed.

If the Cole incident is indeed terrorism, then Mr. bin Laden would be high on Bedlington's list of suspects. He has family and business ties in the region, among other things. And he would be happy to see the US retreat from its role in Middle East peacemaking and the Middle East in general. "I think we are going to see another phase of terrorism" in the Middle East, says the former CIA official. He cites the recent entrapment and capture of three Israeli soldiers by the Islamic militia Hizbullah at the Israel-Lebanon border as an example.

Whether Hizbullah fully resumes terrorist activities, and whether it and other groups such as Hamas are still backed by Syria and Iran, remains to be seen. This loose interconnection overseen by bin Laden "will be the thing to watch," according to Bedlington.

The Cole incident is unlikely to advance the Palestinian cause in its struggle for land and recognition with Israel, note other experts.

If anything, another terrorist attack might make the US tilt more toward its long ally in the fight against terrorism, Israel.

Terrorism holds no benefits

"I don't see any benefit for the Arabs," says Mohammed Abu-Nimer, a professor of Middle East studies at American University in Washington.

The US supports Israel now, and will support Israel after the elections, regardless of who becomes the next president, says Mr. Abu-Nimer. But the imbalance of power between Israel and the Palestinians is such that the US has a major role to play in trying to bring the parties together, he says.

"If any pressure is put on Israel to change its policies, the US should be the third party," he says.

The danger now is that emotional reactions will overwhelm the logic of the situation and plunge the region even deeper into a cycle of violence and revenge. As someone who teaches classes in peacemaking and conciliation, Abu-Nimer of American University finds it a particularly difficult moment.

"It is so frustrating to see everything crumbling, the work of seven years going down the drain," he says.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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