School bomb unveils Israeli militant threat

A bomb in a Palestinian schoolyard injured eight students and a staffer Tuesday.

A bomb planted in a Palestinian schoolyard Tuesday is continuing to reverberate on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, even though it caused fewer casualties than intended.

The bombing in East Jerusalem's Sur Baher neighborhood is thought to be the most extreme Jewish vigilante terrorist strike in years. And though it has been met with silence from Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, Israeli analysts say it poses a grave danger for both sides.

Palestinians worry that it could signal an intensification of Jewish vigilante violence. And for Israelis, it points to the possibility of violent civilian miltancy growing as an accompaniment to the expanding military campaign in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

"This is really an ominous event," says Ariel Merari, a Tel Aviv University specialist on the psychology of terrorism. "The climate of Israelis being killed daily and feeling that government efforts are not enough to stop it is such that, if small-time Jewish attacks are not dealt with very severely, they may proliferate."

For most Israelis, terrorist attacks by Jews against Palestinians are an occasional abberation compared with far more frequent, and now almost-daily, targeting of civilians by Palestinian groups. But Palestinians see the Israeli state - particularly the military - as engaging in terrorism itself.

The Sur Baher attack left, inside classrooms, eight pupils injured by glass shards. A staffer was hit by both shards and shrapnel. Educators who spotted the device ordered the evacuation of the courtyard, which is used daily by about 400 pupils for morning calisthenics at 7:50 a.m. - the time the device exploded.

A previously unknown group calling itself the "Avengers of the Infants" claimed responsibility for the attack in Hebrew-language beeper messages to Israeli journalists. The name hinted that the bombers may have been motivated by a Palestinian suicide attack in Jerusalem Saturday night that killed 10 Israelis, including five infants and children.

Kleiman says police have launched an investigation, and that they treat Arabs and Jews equally in conducting probes. But Palestinians and liberal Israelis doubt the perpetrators will end up behind bars. They point to what they say is a long-standing pattern of lax investigations of Jewish violence against Palestinians.

"No doubt there has been a general climate of tolerance of settler violence, of tacit consent," says Ron Dudai, a staffer at the Israeli human rights group B'tselem. Authorities respond that they often encounter difficulties in investigating attacks on Palestinians, because Palestinian victims are often reluctant to make complaints due to fears that they will be perceived as collaborators with Israeli forces.

Those concerned by the school bombing have in mind a long history of Jewish vigilante and terrorist attacks against Palestinians, including those of a well-organized group from the leading settler movement Gush Emunim during the 1980s. The group, dubbed the "Jewish underground" was broken up in 1984 after it carried out bombings against Palestinian mayors and a shooting attack against a Palestinian college in Hebron. Supporters of the group said they were responding to Palestinian terrorist attacks. Many had their jail sentences cut short by pardons from the then- Israeli president, Chaim Herzog.

The largest-scale attack against Palestinians was carried out in 1994 by an individual settler, Baruch Goldstein, who killed 29 Palestinians as they prayed in a mosque. A commission investigating the massacre concluded there was insufficient law enforcement against settlers. Last year, Israel's High Court upheld a plea bargain in which Nahum Korman, a settler convicted of manslaughter in the death of a 12-year old Palestinian, was sentenced to six months of community service.

Since the latest intifada began in Sept. 2000, several instances of lethal violence are believed to have been carried out by Israeli Jews against Palestinian civilians, including a drive-by shooting last summer that killed three members of one family in the West Bank. No arrests were made.

"I would say this attack was not carried out by the hard core of Jewish settlers but by people without a very ideological message, maybe even bandits, acting spontaneously following the attack in Jerusalem Saturday evening," says Reuven Paz, a Haifa-based researcher on religious radicalism. Mr. Paz says that over the past year "the hard core of the Israeli settlers have restrained themselves, because they had a lot of expectations from Sharon."

He took issue with the reaction of Jerusalem's mayor, Ehud Olmert.Mr. Olmert was quoted by Ha'aretz newspaper as saying "it's possible this was a provocation by Palestinians, since anyway they kill themselves, and it might be that they did this to stir up the [Arab] population."

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's spokesman, Ra'anan Gissin, said: "We don't need to comment about everything. We don't know if it's Jews or Arabs," he said "The police are investigating."

Palestinian legislator Hanan Ashrawi accused Mr. Sharon of encouraging vigilante attacks against Palestinians with a statement he made Monday that "the Palestinians need to be battered."

"When the prime minister himself behaves with utter lawlessness and irresponsibility, he sets a precedent," Ms. Ashrawi said.

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