A standoff steeped in violence

Mideast: Civilian deaths mount as U.S. officials offer little more than demands to stop the violence.

March 07, 2002

CONSIDER the body count of the past week: 67 Palestinians and 32 Israelis killed in the deadliest span of fighting of the 17-month struggle.

Among the dead are Palestinian militants brandishing assault rifles and Israeli children attending a bar mitzvah party, Israeli reserve soldiers manning checkpoints and Palestinian children on their way home from school.

Consider the responses: Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon vows to beat back the Palestinian militants until they plead for a cease- fire. The fighters aligned with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat call for more strikes against Israeli soldiers, though their attacks have killed more than those in uniform.

The firepower, the swift retaliation from both sides and the targets of the past week all indicate that this conflict has taken on the attributes of war. Mr. Sharon has characterized it as such.

Now consider President Bush's reply to Arab appeals that the United States intervene: The violence must be reduced before peace negotiations can begin. It has become the Bush administration's refrain, but the present situation in Israel and the Palestinian territories demands a greater response from the White House.

With Mr. Arafat unwilling or unable to halt the violence, Israel has marshaled its forces to do the job itself. It sent tanks into two Palestinian refugee camps last week to flush out leaders of the militant groups, including the armed wing of Mr. Arafat's Fatah faction.

Within 48 hours, a suicide bomber detonated his lethal package in a Jerusalem neighborhood of Orthodox Jews. A sniper in a West Bank olive grove picked off seven Israeli soldiers, killing the reservists and dealing a psychological blow to the Israeli army's vaunted reputation.

Targeted assassinations by Israeli tanks and helicopter gunships followed. Then, a suicide bombing in Tel Aviv. Israeli vigilantes claimed to have left a crude bomb in the yard of a Palestinian boys school. The collateral damage began to mount.

Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, in Washington for the week, offered the Bush administration a chance to intervene. Only yesterday did Secretary of State Colin L. Powell strongly urge Mr. Sharon, a political hard-liner and former general, to rethink his "no pain, no gain" strategy against the Palestinians. At the same time, he told Mr. Arafat, whom the Israelis have barred from traveling in the territories, that he can no longer use his "house arrest" as an excuse for inaction.

History has shown that this conflict cannot be won with guns and tanks and home-made bombs. The late Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin, a decorated general, learned that during the first Palestinian uprising. As defense minister, he ordered his soldiers to break the bones of Palestinian stone-throwers. But he became the prime minister who shepherded the Oslo peace accord to its historic signing on the White House lawn.

This same history has shown that breakthroughs for peace have occurred under the tutelage of American leadership. A resolution of the Palestinian situation resonates deeply with citizens of the Islamic world, a majority of whom view the the United States unfavorably, according to a recent Gallup poll.

Those who argue that there is no gain in trying to drum the fight out of these two warring sides should think again.

American presidents have brought Israelis and Palestinians to the negotiating table before--and one of them was named George Bush.

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