Israel is on high alert to meet any reprisal attacks by Palestinian or Lebanese supporters of Osama bin Laden. Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's office announced immediately after Britain and the United States launched their air offensive on Afghanistan: "Israel has taken all the necessary steps to maintain the security of its citizens."
The response was deliberately low-key. Israeli security officials see no cause for panic, so long as the allies restrict their target to Afghanistan. If the war extends to Iraq, however, they believe Saddam Hussein may be tempted to fire Scud missiles at Tel Aviv, as he did in the Gulf War a decade ago.
They are watching, nonetheless, to see whether Osama bin Laden tries to widen the conflict, as he did in an interview aired Sunday by the Qatar-based Al Jazeera television station, which is viewed avidly throughout the Arab and Muslim worlds. In the interview, bin Laden praised the World Trade Center bombing and "swore to God" that Americans would not live in peace until Palestinians could do the same.
Ze'ev Schiff, the Ha'aretz daily's veteran military commentator, urged Israel to show restraint. "We must not look for an opportunity to strike Palestinian targets by using the American-British action in Afghanistan as cover," he wrote.
The Bush administration briefed Israel in advance of the missile strikes. Sharon replied by wishing the American president, people and armed forces "the best of luck" and reiterated his readiness to provide any necessary assistance. Israel is reported to have already furnished valuable intelligence information.
The prime minister's spokesman added: "The war against terrorism was, and continues to be, the State of Israel's war. Israel has provided, and will continue to provide, assistance to the nations of the free world in any way they may require in the struggle against terrorism."
Both Israel and the Palestinian Authority, for different reasons, were quick to repudiate Osama bin Laden's espousal of the Palestinian cause.
Foreign Minister Shimon Peres told Israel Radio: "What's [bin Laden] blabbing about? You don't need any war of liberation for the Palestinians. We offered them liberation without war. Who needs him?"
Peres insisted that there had been a difference of opinion between the governments of Ehud Barak and Yasser Arafat over 3 to 4 percent of the West Bank's area. "Is that a reason," he demanded, "to kill 6,000 or 7,000 people in New York? Just because of one lunatic? Who appointed him? What did he bring the world besides murder, killing, hatred and idiocy?"
Arafat, who has been pressing for America and Europe to impose a solution on Israel, was desperate to avoid being tarred with bin Laden's brush. "We have nothing to do with the man," a spokesman for the Palestinian leader said. "We absolutely do not condone anything that he has done. We have nothing against the American people or against the West. We deplore the actions carried out on September 11. Bin Laden is trying to use us, and we cannot allow that to happen."
The Palestinian street does not always share Arafat's discretion. Police in Gaza on Monday dispersed a pro-bin Laden student demonstration with tear gas and shots in the air. Bin Laden posters have been borne in triumph in the West Bank and Gaza ever since the Twin Towers bombing.
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