Mideast: all attack, no endgame

As Israel lays siege to Arafat in Ramallah, five suicide bombings in as many days have upped the conflict's stakes.

The no-way-out nature of this phase of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict grows clearer by the day: The Palestinians will not stop fighting until they can taste the end of 35 years of occupation, and Israel will not countenance any political deals until the Palestinians cease their terrorist assaults.

Until one side caves in or a mediator finds a way to establish a truce, analysts say, Palestinian suicide bombings will continue, and the Israelis will broaden their military operations in Palestinian areas.

The pronouncements of both sides are steeped in a chilling acceptance of this war of attrition. "Palestinians are not afraid of death anymore and, therefore, they are not afraid of the Israeli army anymore," says Nabil Shaath, a Palestinian cabinet minister and peace negotiator.

"So far it looks pretty good: Ramallah has not turned out to be another Stalingrad," says Moshe Arens, a former Israeli defense minister, contrasting Israel's unhindered invasion of a West Bank city with a bitterly fought siege of World War II. "It's the beginning of what I wanted to see happen."

Yesterday's suicide bombings in the northern Israeli city of Haifa and the West Bank settlement of Efrat, the fourth and fifth such attacks against Israeli civilians in five days, are further indications of Palestinian resolve. Mr. Arens says he expects Israeli forces to broaden their presence in Palestinian areas.

The current downward lurch in the conflict began with a particularly atrocious suicide bombing last Wednesday, which killed 22 people at their Passover seder meal. After near round-the-clock deliberations, the Israeli Cabinet Friday morning authorized "a wide-ranging operational action plan against Palestinian terror," declaring Yasser Arafat an "enemy." "At this stage," a Cabinet communique said, "he will be isolated."

Thus began an Israeli assault on the West Bank hub city of Ramallah and the headquarters of the Palestinian Authority president. Israeli forces quickly occupied most of the city-block-sized compound, overwhelming resistance from Arafat's security forces and confining him and his aides to a windowless room. Prime Minister Ariel Sharon offered assurances to US Secretary of State Colin Powell that Arafat would not be killed.

The Israeli strategy of "applying pressure" on Arafat seems to have nearly hit its zenith, but it is difficult to discern what such pressure is intended to accomplish.

The original idea was that attacks on the symbols of Arafat's authority would impel him to exert that authority in the service of containing Palestinian militancy and safeguarding Israel.

Now the Palestinian leader is barely able to keep his cellphone charged, much less marshal the means or the political support necessary to take steps to protect Israelis. In the meantime, Israeli forces have taken up the task of policing the Palestinians, running house-to-house searches for militants and rounding up adult males en masse to screen them for possible arrest.

"Ramallah is going pretty well in terms of the operational objectives being met," says Jacob Dallal, a spokesman for the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), noting that 145 suspected militants have been arrested, including two experienced operatives from the military wing of Arafat's Fatah movement. The IDF has also released a list of small arms seized at Arafat's compound.

Unlike earlier incursions into Palestinian towns and refugee camps – which lasted anywhere from a couple of days to a week or so – the current operations are open-ended, says Mr. Dallal.

The Israeli government appears to want to conduct this work without the benefit of press coverage, declaring Ramallah and its environs a "closed military zone," and threatening to arrest and remove any nonresidents found in the area, including journalists. IDF foreign press spokesman Lt. Col. Olivier Rafovitch yesterday said there were no plans to bring reporters into the area under the aegis of the IDF.

At the same time, Israel has opened an official press center in Jerusalem, presumably to ease the dissemination of Israeli views.

Arafat, for his part, has been eager to talk to the media, using much of his time under siege to grant interviews. The defiant tone he struck in one telephone conversation with the Reuters news agency was typical. "The only thing he can do is take me as the corpse of a martyr," Arafat said, referring to Sharon. "He will not take me any other way."

The Israeli strategy seems to satisfy a deeply felt Israeli yearning for action – any action – to counter the Palestinian threat. The invasion of Ramallah, says Mark Heller of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies in Tel Aviv, "is at least as much an expression of outrage and people being fed up as it is a coherent strategic move."

"Right now there is a pretty much across-the-board consensus that something needs to be done, and the only real question is whether it is enough or whether more should be done," he adds.

This sentiment is captured in the words of David Martin, a resident of a West Bank settlement who came to Jerusalem on business Mar. 21 and witnessed from 50 yards away the explosion of a suicide bomber on King George Street. "We can't pussy foot around with Arafat," said Mr. Martin shortly after his close call. "We should go after him and cut off the head of the snake."

On the other side of Israel's political spectrum, there is more confusion. The dovish Ha'aretz newspaper editorialized yesterday that Sharon has yet to state a political goal for a settlement with the Palestinians and has missed an opportunity afforded by a recent Saudi proposal for comprehensive peace.

"The government has once more awakened concerns that in its struggle against the Palestinian Authority, it is not honestly offering a hand of peace but is aiming to achieve the opposite: to continue and perpetuate the hold over the territories."

"Today, there is absolutely no one saying where this is going," said parliamentary Speaker Avraham Burg yesterday, in an interview on Israeli public radio.

But if the Israeli strategy lacks an obvious endgame, the Palestinians seem clearer than ever about their goal: ending Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, which began with the 1967 Arab-Israeli war.

Even teenagers in a refugee camp in the West Bank town of Bethlehem say that the fight for the end of occupation is what justifies Palestinian suicide-bomb attacks on Israelis. (See page 7)

Israelis, however, are increasingly mistrustful of Palestinian intentions. The widely held perceptions that the Palestinians were offered and rejected an end to occupation fuels concerns that their true goal is the annihilation of Israel and that their motive is religious hatred.

The increasing pace of attacks on civilians inside Israel – as opposed to soldiers and settlers in the West Bank and Gaza Strip – tends to reinforce Israeli fears that allowing the Palestinians to have a state on those lands will only lead to more conflict.

The Passover Seder attack, wrote commentator Yoel Marcus on the front page of Ha'aretz yesterday, "had the character of a pogrom, and was marked more by signs of hatred of the Jews than of a struggle for liberation from the Israeli conquest."

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