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Increasing Tensions

Analysts warn a wider war possible in inflamed Mideast.


by Gil Sedan

November 2, 2000 | 7:00 pm

As the violence in the West Bank and Gaza Strip enters its second month, there is a growing fear that it will escalate and embroil the entire region.

"It is absolutely mandatory that this conflict should not turn into an interreligious war," Avishai Braverman, president of Ben-Gurion University in Beersheba, said this week. "If this turns into a religious war, we shall have an apocalypse."

Events of the past few days have provided ample fuel for those who believe that the violence will become a more wide-ranging religious conflict. Millions in neighboring Muslim countries have staged massive demonstrations against Israel and the United States.

These protests have taken on a distinctly religious tone, with militants calling on the faithful to rescue the Al-Aksa mosque, the holy shrine to Islam on Jerusalem's Temple Mount.

The demonstrations in Egypt and Jordan could threaten the stability of those regimes, which continue to maintain peaceful - albeit strained - relations with Israel.

This week, however, Israel's most problematic neighbor seemed to be Lebanon. Palestinian refugees living in Lebanon staged demonstrations at the border fence with Israel, reminding the world of a time bomb still ticking away within Lebanon.

Lebanon's president, Emile Lahoud, spoke at last week's Arab summit in Cairo of the need to allow 350,000 Palestinian refugees to return to the homes they abandoned during Israel's 1948 War of Independence.

According to observers, he did not issue the call because he is a champion of the refugees' rights, but because he worries that the time bomb will explode within his country instead of Israel.Along with the refugee problem, Israeli officials are also concerned about what Hezbollah's next move may be.

This week, the Israel Defense Force warned of a possible resumption of terrorist attacks along the country's northern border.

The commander of Israel's northern forces, Maj. Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi, said Monday that there is reason to believe Hezbollah will try to open a second front in addition to the ongoing clashes in the West Bank and Gaza.

This second front was also on the mind of some Palestinians. Demonstrators marched this week in the West Bank town of Ramallah chanting: "Hezbollah, hit Tel Aviv."

Israel has reportedly pressed Washington to add Lebanon to its list of countries supporting terrorism, a move that would considerably limit Lebanon's business contacts with the United States.

The Israeli move is being seen as part of an effort to force the Lebanese government to take steps that would prevent Hezbollah from heating up the border.

If this does happen, Syria could be dragged into the conflict. Israeli officials, including the deputy defense minister, Ephraim Sneh, warn that they will hold Syria responsible for any Hezbollah attacks.

Among those who caution that the current violence could embroil the wider region is professor Shimon Shamir, a former Israeli ambassador to both Egypt and Jordan who is one of the nation's leading experts on the Arab world.

Indeed, he believes that this is a specific goal of Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat, who would like nothing better than to see the broader Arab world come to the aid of the Palestinian cause.Luckily for Israel, Egypt and Jordan are not playing along with Arafat.

Just as luckily, the untested new Syrian leader, Bashar Assad, does not yet seem strong enough to escalate the situation - although he may let Hezbollah do the job for him.

Shamir warned that Israel should not rely for long on the ability of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and Jordan's King Abdullah to keep a lid on the overheated streets of Cairo and Amman.

"There is a limit to their powers," warned Shamir. He added that the worse the situation in the West Bank and Gaza becomes, the more Mubarak and Abdullah would have to bow to the demands of hard-liners within their own countries.

Some experts, however, do not believe the current violence will take on a regional dimension. Observers like Ephraim Inbar of the Begin-Sadat Center at Bar-Ilan University said this week that while people should treat the situation with caution, they should not overreact.

"Israel should not be afraid of escalation," said Inbar, who added that if Israel responds to attacks from Palestinian gunmen, "there will be no escalation in the neighboring Arab countries, because they, too, understand that there are things" that demand a response.

And what would the Palestinians do if, indeed, the Arab world does not come rushing to their aid? This is a difficult question, because Palestinian society is not monolithic.

For one, there are forces competing for the leadership. Along with Arafat, who enjoys the greatest popularity among his people, there is also Marwan Barghouti, leader of the armed militias, as well as the militant leaders of Hamas and Islamic Jihad.

Beyond their competition for the hearts and minds of the populace, there is also the fact that among the Palestinian people there are different responses to the ongoing violence.

"Many Palestinians believe there is not enough shooting," said Oded Granot, Arab affairs analyst for the Ma'ariv newspaper. "But on the other hand, there are just as many Palestinians who believe that Arafat should have handled the crisis differently, more wisely."

Ami Ayalon, the former head of the Shin Bet domestic security service, said in a television interview over the weekend that Arafat no longer controls the territories.

He is among those who believe that younger and more militant types - people like Barghouti and local Hamas officials - are solidifying their power bases.

Ayalon's observation stood in sharp contrast to the repeated statements by Israeli policymakers that Arafat can order quiet in the territories within a matter of hours.

When all is said and done, it is too early to tell whether Arafat is still as powerful as some believe him to be, or whether the present violence - like the 1987-1993 intifada - is being orchestrated on the street.

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