Israel took its war with the Palestinians into Syria Sunday, the first expansion of the three-year-old battle beyond its own cities and the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
The target of the air assault - chosen after a devastating suicide bombing in Haifa, Israel - was what Israel said was a terrorist training base near Damascus. It was the first Israeli attack on Syrian soil since 1973. Israel said the base was used by Islamic Jihad, the group responsible for the bombing at a Haifa restaurant Saturday that killed 19 people.
Senior Israeli officials say the attack on Syria marks a strategy shift. "It's time we put a real threat not just to the suicide bombers but to the regimes behind them," says Yuval Steinitz, the chairman of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee. "This includes Arafat and the Palestinians and [Syrian President] Bashar Assad as well."
Arab leaders condemned the suicide bombing, and the attack on Syria, worrying aloud Sunday that it could "drag the whole region into a circle of violence," as Jordan's foreign minister put it.
Syria, for example, could choose to respond via proxy forces in Lebanon.
Sunday, Syrian officials signaled that they would not respond militarily to the Israeli attack, calling instead for a UN Security Council meeting. "Syria has practiced the highest level of self-restraint, realizing that Israel is trying to create pretexts hereand there to export its internal crisis to the region," wrote Syrian Foreign Minister Farouq al-Shara in a letter to the UN.
The reasoning, say supporters of Israel's more aggressive posture, is that military force, or the threat of it, is the only thing that can dissuade Syrian support for Islamic Jihad and thereby protect Israeli citizens. Israeli analysts predict there could be more military strikes if Syria does not close down facilities that Israel says are used by Islamic Jihad and Hamas and other militant groups
"There is a message in the attack to the region as a whole that Israel is prepared to strike whenever and wherever it sees fit," says Leslie Susser, diplomatic correspondent for Jerusalem Report magazine.
"Israel is saying we have another arrow in the bow and can use it from time to time. It is saying we will not be restricted to the kind of responses we had in the past or to the West Bank and Gaza Strip," Susser says.
But there are doubts about whether the attack will have the desired impact.
Eyal Zisser, a specialist on Syria at Tel Aviv University, says that Mr.Assad is unlikely to close down Islamic Jihad as a result of the strike. He argues that if Syria did not listen to US Secretary of State Colin Powell's demands during a May visit to Damascus on these matters, the Israeli attack is unlikely to have more impact. "Israel will face a dilemma over whether to escalate attacks" to press Assad if there are further attacks in Israel by Islamic Jihad, he predicts. "If this attack does not work, either they will have to give it up and say there was no use attacking Syria in the first place or to attack next time a building in Damascus." Mr. Zisser adds: I doubt that would happen, I don't think Israel or the United States wants that."
Israeli leaders attacked Syria, say diplomatic sources, because they were encouraged by the United States's tough approach towards Damascus, including Mr. Powell's ultimatum to close down offices and strong statements by President Bush. But analysts also say that attacking Syria was influenced in part by the need to assuage the Israeli public after the Haifa attack.
On Saturday, Islamic Jihad dispatched a 29-year old woman lawyer, Hanadi Jaradat to perpetrate the bombing at the Maxim Restaurant in Haifa. Her brother, an Islamic Jihad member and a cousin, a militia fighter had been killed by Israeli forces in June. The restaurant was jointly owned by Jews and Arabs. It was packed with families on Sabbath afternoon, something the fatality toll grimly reflects; three children were among the dead. Nine of the 48 wounded were seriously hurt.
In weighing responses after the attack, Israeli conservatives renewed calls for the expulsion of Palestinian president Yasser Arafat, whom Israel last month said should be "removed" on the grounds that he is an obstacle to peace. But given broad international opposition to that step, the government was expected to opt for something less. "Arafat's expulsion will not serve our interests now," said cabinet minister Gideon Ezra. "What is needed is to isolate him." In practice, media reports said, that would mean confining him in a very small space inside his compound and preventing him from having contact with the outside world.
Mr. Arafat and other Palestinian leaders strongly condemned the attack, with the prime minister designate Ahmed Qurei phoning the mayor of Haifa to offer condolences. "Our position is clear, we are against harming all civilians," says Palestinian legislator Jamal Shobaki. "It is not in the interests of the Palestinian people. We must acceptable means against the occupation, respecting our traditions. This must be stopped completely."
But Dore Gold, an adviser to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, responds: "Israel has gone through the last two and a half years of Arafat condemning terror and initiating it at the same time. These statements by the Palestinian leadership don't make a great impression."