Indications everywhere point to rougher struggle in Mideast

Bomb at Arab school, rocket strike into Israel among latest attacks

March 06, 2002|By BOSTON GLOBE

TEL AVIV, Israel - Palestinian attacks on Israelis yesterday: an assault on a crowded Tel Aviv restaurant, a bus bombing in Afula, Kassam II rocket fire from Gaza into Israel, and assorted shootings at motorists in the West Bank.

Israeli assaults on Palestinians: a bomb at a Jerusalem high school, the killings of Hamas activists in Ramallah, and rocket attacks on security installations in Nablus, Tulkarm and the Gaza Strip.

The five dead on each side was a below-average one-day toll for the current, extremely bloody phase of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but there were dozens of nonfatal clashes and indications everywhere that the struggle was about to get much rougher.

One such indication was the Kassam rocket attack. It was the first time Palestinian militants have managed to hit a target in an Israeli city. A 1-year-old was hurt.

Israeli officials have warned that firing the Kassam rockets into Israel would be viewed as an escalation and would not be tolerated. Israel immediately retaliated, sending fighter jets and helicopters to shell Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's security compound in Gaza City, his parking lot, a police headquarters and a police academy.

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon made headlines throughout the region yesterday for comments in parliament a day earlier that the Palestinians had to be beaten until they begged for mercy before there could be a return to negotiations.

Israel's security Cabinet made no formal statement after a prolonged meeting yesterday, but a senior security source said it has been decided that "the number of targets and the extensiveness of our operations will be increased" as a result of a string of successful Palestinian attacks on Israelis.

He said serious failures by Israel Defense Forces that led to the deaths of numerous Israeli soldiers and of civilians on both sides created an "impact on the perceptions of the Palestinians" and that it is necessary for Israel to correct that image of vulnerability.

Palestinians are openly emboldened by the Israeli failures and are rallying around the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, a militant group that is associated with Arafat's Fatah movement and that carried out all the recent major attacks.

"The Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades are growing stronger," said Husam Khader, head of Fatah in Nablus' Balata refugee camp.

Palestinian observers and Israeli officials alike believe the militant group is covertly funded by Arafat, but Khader said the group would not obey any Arafat order to stop fighting until there is convincing progress toward establishing an independent Palestinian state.

Israeli extremists also are flexing their muscles. A previously unknown group, Avengers of the Infants, claimed responsibility for the bomb that wounded seven students and a teacher at an Arab high school in East Jerusalem.

The Israeli security source also said significant changes have occurred in the armed Palestinian opposition to Israel. Until about two months ago, the Tanzim organization, through which the Brigades and the Fatah movement are connected, "was more controlled, more restrained and more responsible" than the extremist Hamas and Islamic Jihad movements, he said.

"Two or three months ago," he said, "the leaders of the Tanzim persuaded Arafat that restraints on the Tanzim should be lifted," which greatly increased the ranks of Palestinians fighting Israel with terror and guerrilla tactics.

"There were dozens of very dangerous Hamas activists," he said, and now "there are maybe hundreds of Tanzim. ... The Israeli policy is to cause the Palestinians to pay a price high enough to convince them that this lifting of restraints cannot be accepted by us."

As the shooting grows more intense, so too does the war of rhetoric and propaganda.

After every bombing or attack, Israeli representatives assert that Arafat was directly responsible - an assertion used by Sharon to explain the need to strike the Palestinian Authority hard and "cause them heavy casualties."

"I don't expect the Palestinian Authority to halt terrorism," Sharon told The Jerusalem Post. "They are terrorism. Arafat is the father of all terrorism."

Palestinian representatives respond in kind after every Israeli strike, calling every Israeli operation a massacre for which Sharon, who is reviled by Palestinians, is personally responsible.

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