In Gaza Strip, tough tactics in terrorism fight

Israel's approach fuels Palestinian support for extremists, critics say

Terrorism Strikes America

The World

September 18, 2001|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

RAFAH, Gaza Strip - There used to be homes here, lined up snug against the Egyptian border, so close that had there been no fence their dusty back yards would have melted into the rough folds of the Sinai Peninsula.

Israel has reduced them to rubble. Piles of jagged limestone form an endless narrow field, interrupted only by towers manned by Israeli soldiers who train machine-gun fire on anyone who wanders near.

This buffer zone is part of Israel's war on terrorism, preventing guns from being smuggled from Egypt and into Palestinian-controlled areas.

Israel's army also routinely hunts down and kills people suspected of being terrorists, sends tanks into Palestinian villages and has put civilian populations under military siege. These practices have long been accepted as common in Israel, where rules of engagement are liberal and casualties are accepted as tragedies of war.

If Israel's experience is an example of how to combat terrorism, it may be a guide to the tactics the United States considers as it formulates plans for action against Osama bin Laden, the key suspect after last week's attacks in New York and Washington.

U.S. officials already talk of a long, shadowy war against a largely invisible enemy who has no real allegiance to a state. American soldiers may die. An executive order prohibiting assassinations might be reversed.

"You cannot treat terrorism as a criminal problem, where you wait for the terrorist to act and then you get an indictment," said Michael Kramer, a senior research fellow at the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies in Tel Aviv.

"Israel looks at terrorism as an ongoing war," he said. "The rules of warfare are more relaxed than for crimes and punishment. If America intends to wage this war, it's going to have to adjust ... to this kind of norm."

But even Israel's tanks and laser-guided missiles, aimed at a population armed with homemade mortars and machine guns, have been unable to stop suicide bombers from infiltrating Israel.

Critics charge that Israel's exclusively military campaign is shortsighted because it ignores what might be legitimate complaints from Palestinian civilians. Target the terrorists, these critics say, but don't ignore the people.

"Militant groups are sensitive to the pulse on the street," said Khalil Shikaki, head of the Center for Palestine Research and Studies. He noted that when an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement seemed close in the late 1990s, support for suicide bombings plummeted.

Now, Shikaki said, it is at an all-time high. Government, he said, "doesn't have to address the extremists. The problem is what causes the public to mobilize into extremists. This is what Israel has failed to address."

There is, for example, Salwa al-Quaddi, whose house stands alone amid the piles of rubble near the Egyptian border in the southern Gaza Strip. Al-Quaddi, the wife of a retired teacher, said both sides cause her suffering: First, Palestinian gunmen shot at Israeli soldiers from an adjacent refugee camp. The Israelis responded by bulldozing neighboring houses, and shooting at hers.

"The Israelis call us terrorists," al-Quaddi said as a loud burst of gunfire ripped overhead, scaring repairmen off her top floor. "But we feel like the Americans do now. We are scared in our own homes. And some of us don't have homes anymore."

Israel has surrounded the 25-mile-long Gaza Strip - a crowded, poverty-stricken wedge of seaside land - with fences, walls, snipers and tanks. Few people are allowed in. Even fewer are allowed out. The military blockade and its expanding buffer zone keep suicide bombers from reaching Israel and the bombers from obtaining weapons.

But it has helped create a fertile ground for fanaticism; a child was spotted at a rally last week holding a poster of Osama bin Laden. Israeli soldiers and Palestinian gunmen exchange fire daily at military checkpoints designed to protect the 7,000 Jewish settlers living amid a million Palestinians.

Israelis officials say their seemingly harsh tactics thwart many terrorist attacks here and in the West Bank. On Sunday, tanks moved into the West Bank city of Ramallah and engaged in a protracted fight that left two Palestinians and one soldier dead. The Israeli army said that, thanks to the tanks, it had arrested four suspected terrorists allegedly planning a large-scale attack in Jerusalem to coincide with Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year.

Shikaki said the United States needs to avoid creating an oppressed population like that in the Palestinian territories. The American military can kill bin Laden for orchestrating the suicide bombings, Shikaki said, but officials also "need to determine what the grievances are that caused people to support such a horrific act. Those grievances might be easy and cheap to address. Then you've won half the battle."

But Kramer, the Dayan center researcher, said unbridled use of military force works. In the Gaza Strip, for example, "a lot of terrorists don't get through," he said.

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