Mideast cycle of war begins anew

Sharon cut short a US visit to return to Israel yesterday after a suicide bomb killed 15 Israelis.

The cycle of Middle East violence turned another revolution Tuesday night, and the Palestinian suicide bomber who killed 15 Israelis in Rishon Letzion has dimmed peace prospects even further.

Palestinians are bracing themselves for another round of Israeli military retaliation in the wake of the bombing, which ended a three-week lull in suicide attacks. But Israeli analysts and Palestinian spokesmen agreed that military action alone is insufficient to deter the bombers.

"We had no illusions" that Operation Defensive Shield, the recent Israeli invasion of Palestinian-controlled areas of the West Bank "would end all terrorism," says Moshe Arens, a former Israeli defense minister and senior member of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's Likud party. "But it is a question of bringing down the level of violence very significantly, and Defensive Shield showed the way."

A spokesman for Hamas, the radical Islamist group that claimed responsibility for Tuesday's bombing, warns of more attacks in the absence of a political peace agreement.

Israel's "military victory over the intifada [uprising] will not bring security for Israelis," says Ismail Abu Shanab. "Security can only be maintained by withdrawal" of Israeli troops.

Mr. Sharon, cutting short a visit to Washington on news of the latest attack, blamed Yasser Arafat and his Palestinian Authority for it and promised a fierce response.

"He who rises up to kill us, we will preempt and kill him first," he warned. "Israel will continue to uproot the terrorist infrastructure – the battle continues and will continue."

Mr. Arafat, however, ordered his security forces yesterday to "prevent all terrorist operations against Israeli civilians," according to wire reports. The Palestinian Authority had earlier condemned the Rishon Letzion bombing in unprecedently harsh terms, calling suicide bombings "terrorist crimes" in a statement. The authorities promised "firm and strict measures against those who are involved in this operation, and will not be light-handed in punishing those who have caused great harm to our cause."

That suggested to some observers that Mr. Arafat's Fatah movement has reconsidered suicide bombing as a tactic. The Al Aqsa Brigades, an offshoot of Fatah, claimed responsibility for many of the bombings that provoked Israel's incursion into the West Bank at the end of March. Arafat, however, has little or no authority over Hamas, and Palestinian officials complain that in the wake of Israeli assaults over recent months they are left without the security forces they need to find and arrest Hamas cells.

The Israeli army destroyed the Palestinians' Preventive Security headquarters in Ramallah during its incursion, and had previously rocketed and destroyed all Palestinian security offices but one in Gaza, according to security sources there.

"Arafat has said he will pursue the perpetrators, but I don't know what's left of our security forces," says Palestinian spokesman Saeb Erakat. "Our capabilities have been destroyed."

In Gaza, where Hamas has its command center, the police force is working out of garages and other temporary accommodations, and security officials from Gaza City are prevented by Israeli roadblocks from reaching the south of the Gaza Strip, says Ahmed al-Sabawi, spokesman for local security chief Mohammed Dahlan.

No complete military solution

In the wake of Israeli missile attacks on their buildings and other facilities, "we have no guarantee that if we put someone in jail, the jail won't be hit," complains Sabawi. "We have no understanding that our work won't be destroyed by the Israeli army."

Israelis, however, still believe that Arafat could do more to stamp out the suicide bombings, and most of them are aware that their army on its own cannot prevent a new wave of attacks.

"One cannot have a complete military solution, because one or two of these suicide bombers can penetrate the Israeli defense lines," says Ephraim Kam, a former army colonel who is now deputy director of the Jaffee center think tank in Tel Aviv. "It can always happen."

But "if the volume of terror is significant, one has to expect smaller or larger [Israeli military] operations in the West Bank and Gaza Strip," he predicts.

Army chief of staff Shaul Mofaz was consulting with military commanders on Wednesday. The day before he had told the Knesset (parliament) Defense and Foreign Affairs Committee that "if terror attacks are renewed, the State of Israel will be forced to undertake an operation that is similar to and perhaps even broader than Operation Defensive Shield."

'Minimal trust'

Such a move would set prospects for US-sponsored peace talks – already slim – even further back. Despite Washington's efforts to organize a regional peace conference in the coming weeks, "the necessary conditions" for such talks "do not exist with the current level of violence," says Mr. Arens.

With Palestinians reeling from the destructive effects of Defensive Shield, and Israelis fearful of new terror bombings, "there is not even a minimal amount of trust" between the two sides, says Mr. Kam.

"Without that, no substantial negotiations can make progress."

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