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War is in the Air

The latest Israeli retaliation leads some to ponder if both sides will reach a breaking point.

by David Landau

August 30, 2001 | 8:00 pm

An Orthodox Israeli looks at a poster of Arafat and Peres shaking hands that reads "Oslo criminals should be brought to judgement." Photo by Brian Hendler/JTA

An Orthodox Israeli looks at a poster of Arafat and Peres shaking hands that reads "Oslo criminals should be brought to judgement." Photo by Brian Hendler/JTA

As Israeli opposition leader Yossi Sarid noted this week, the slide into war often happens despite the fact that no one intends or wishes it.

As the Al-Aksa Intifada entered its 12th month this week with a new and ominous surge in the level of violence, Israelis are beginning to wonder if the "smell of war," as Sarid wrote, indeed is in the air.

Attention focused this week on several escalations: Israel's incursion into the Christian town of Beit Jalla in response to sustained firing on the Jerusalem suburb of Gilo; an incursion into the Gaza Strip in response to Palestinian attacks; and the killing of Mustafa Zabri, secretary-general of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, who died in a pinpoint Israeli missile strike on his office in Ramallah.

Leader of a hard-line PLO faction that continues to reject a negotiated settlement with Israel, Zabri -- better-known as Abu Ali Mustafa -- was the highest-ranking figure yet killed in Israel's policy of targeting terrorist leaders.

Zabri's political standing sets him apart from the other victims of Israel's assassinations, and led Israeli pundits to dissect Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's strategy.

While some questioned the wisdom of the move, others noted that Sharon had sent a message to the Palestinians that anyone who masterminds terror attacks on Israel is not safe from the Israel Defense Force.

"Too many people have become used to a situation in which the senior Palestinian statesmen of terror sit safely in their offices while those whom they dispatch kill and are killed," the Israeli daily Yediot Ahronot wrote in an editorial. "These statesmen of terror see themselves as immune from any Israeli retaliation and punishment. The IDF's action yesterday made it clear to them that this is not the case."

But Yediot concluded that "in a cost-benefit analysis, the disadvantages of killing [Zabri] are liable to outweigh its benefits."

In The Jerusalem Post, however, former IDF Gen. Oren Shachor wrote that taking out terrorist leaders of Zabri's stature "is a crucial, not just a desired, tack to take."

The remnants of the Israeli peace camp, however, harshly attacked the move.

Labor Party politician Yossi Beilin called Sharon "a Nero burning himself and Rome while he plays the fiddle," telling the Israeli daily Ha'aretz that "Sharon is escalating the conflict with no strategy to end it." Beilin called on Labor to leave the unity government.

Saleh Tarif, the first Arab to serve as an Israeli Cabinet minister, said that "the distance from the assassination" of Zabri to the assassination of Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat is "very small."

Sharon sought to stop such speculation in its tracks, however, as his Inner Security Cabinet decided Monday that Israel would not take out Palestinian elected officials -- a signal that Arafat was not a target.

Escalation continued Monday night, when Israeli tanks and armored personnel carriers rolled into the Palestinian Christian town of Beit Jalla after Palestinian gunmen had raked the Jerusalem neighborhood of Gilo with fire for hours, injuring one Israeli.

The move made good on Israel's warning several weeks ago, after a particularly vigorous day of Palestinian shooting on Gilo, that Israel would no longer allow a residential neighborhood of its capital to be turned into a shooting gallery.

Unlike their tactics in previous incursions into Palestinian-controlled territory, however, the troops seized several buildings overlooking Gilo and dug in.

Taken together, the two Israeli actions were considered a significant escalation by many observers, and certainly by the international community.

After the United States called on Israel on Tuesday to withdraw from Beit Jalla, Foreign Minister Shimon announced Wednesday that Israel and the P.A. had reached a cease-fire agreement covering Gilo and Beit Jalla. Israeli officials said they were viewing the agreement cautiously.

Earlier Wednesday, Palestinians fired at least two mortar bombs at Gilo, and on Tuesday evening Palestinians fired a mortar into the center of Gilo, hitting a community center. No one was injured.

Also on Wednesday, Israeli tanks and bulldozers seized a main road to seal off Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip. During the operation, Israeli forces shot dead a Palestinian policeman who was believed to work for a militant group. Israel seized that area after Palestinian gunmen repeatedly fired on nearby army positions.

The slaying of Zabri on Monday was particularly unnerving to the Palestinian leadership because there previously had been the unspoken understanding that political figures on the Palestinian side were immune from assassination attempts. Zabri returned to Ramallah from Damascus in 1999 with Israel's tacit consent.

His killing immediately triggered two reactions that Israelis found troubling:

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• PFLP spokesmen vowed to take revenge against Israelis and Israeli targets everywhere. Veteran observers here recalled the organization's spectacular attacks during the 1970s on planes, embassies and airports around the world, as well as its more recent involvement in car bombings in Israeli cities.

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• Other Palestinian militant groups, including the fundamentalist Hamas and Islamic Jihad, urged unity and joint action against Israel, despite the deep ideological differences between such groups and the Marxist-secular PFLP.

On the same night as Israel entered Beit Jalla, IDF tanks were active inside Rafah on the southern edge of the Gaza Strip, leaving after they flattened several buildings used by Palestinian gunmen to shoot at Israeli troops.

The IDF's actions came after a series of grave incidents over the weekend.

Early Saturday morning, two Palestinian gunmen shot their way into an IDF post in the Gaza Strip and killed a major and two soldiers. Seven other Israeli soldiers were wounded before one of the gunmen was himself shot dead. The other escaped, but was hunted down later.

The incident and its consequences severely shook the nation. "This shows daring on the part of the Palestinians," an IDF general admitted. "We would not expect this sort of outcome in face-to-face fighting."

But there was hardly time to grieve or to ponder.

That same night, a family of five was ambushed on the highway from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv. The parents, Sharon and Yaniv Ben-Shalom, and the mother's young brother, Doron Sabari, were killed. The Ben-Shaloms' two baby girls survived with light injuries.

The next day, a Netanya businessman, Dov Rosman, was shot dead as he did some business with a Palestinian just inside the West Bank near Tulkarm.

On Monday, a father of five, Meir Linksberg of the West Bank settlement of Itamar, was shot dead while driving on a road in the West Bank.

On Tuesday, Israeli police arrested what they said was a three-man cell on its way to carry out a terror attack in the Negev city of Beersheba.

On Wednesday there was more bloodshed when an Israeli truck driver was shot and killed at close range in a terrorist attack near the West Bank city of Nabulus.

The slaying of Zabri and the move into Beit Jalla served to boost the country's battered morale, and some observers factored that into their analysis of the decisions.

The decision-making itself was a source of controversy, as Foreign Minister Shimon Peres, the ranking Labor Party man in the Inner Cabinet, said he had not been consulted about either the assassination of Zabri or the incursion into Beit Jalla.

On the other hand, Peres' fellow Laborite, Ben-Eliezer, was very much involved in the decision-making, and a major partisan battle was not expected.

Indeed, some suggested that Peres was trying to distance himself from the decisions in order to preserve his prospects for launching a new round of negotiations with Arafat.

Such attempts appear increasingly unlikely -- and not just from the Israeli side. In recent days Arafat carried a gun while inspecting the rubble from one Israeli attack in the Gaza Strip, a gesture many considered his way of saying to his people that violence is legitimate.

And on Tuesday, a Palestinian poll showed that 81 percent of Palestinians support suicide bombing attacks against Israel as long as Israeli restrictions against Palestinians remain in place.

"Given the worsening of Palestinian violence -- seven Israelis killed within 48 hours -- and the Israeli decision to step up the strength of its military responses, reports of the continuing contacts ahead of a Peres-Arafat meeting sound like reports from another planet," the Israeli daily Ma'ariv editorialized.

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