A line crossed?

Ramallah: Israeli tanks move into a major Palestinian city and raise questions on the prospect for peace.

March 13, 2002

ISRAEL'S strongmen insist they have no desire to take back the land the Jewish state ceded to Palestinians in the heyday of the peace process. But as 150 tanks stormed through Ramallah yesterday, one word came to mind: reoccupation.

The tanks rolled in as the Israeli army cut off power to the city of 57,000 and armored bulldozers churned up city streets.

The Israeli government spin machine rolled out its take on the offensive. Ramallah, the seat of Palestinian social and political power on the West Bank, has been branded an "axis of terrorism."

George W. Bush also borrowed that World War II-era phrase. But its use here, on the eve of the arrival of the Bush administration's peace envoy, Anthony Zinni, can only be viewed with the utmost cynicism.

Yesterday's violence calls into question Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's stated desire for a cease-fire and his regard for U.S. efforts to broker peace. . It is an affront to Secretary of State Colin L. Powell's plea this week for "maximum restraint."

Israel launched its ground offensive against terrorist groups last month and began in the refugee camps that ring the major Palestinian cities. The army rounded up about 2,000 Palestinians and recovered stockpiles of weapons and bomb-making goods.

Can those military gains offset the civilian casualties, international opposition and Palestinian enmity that inevitably result? One army company's decision to keep track of its prisoners by writing numbers on their forearms and foreheads raised unsettling associations; the army chief of staff ordered the practice stopped, noting that it was not military policy.

The Sharon government makes no apologies for its decision to send the army into Ramallah, the secular heart of the Palestinian Authority. It claims 32 terrorist attacks - in which 72 Israelis died - emanated from Ramallah and the militant groups operating there.

But if Mr. Sharon waits to withdraw his tanks and soldiers from Ramallah as a courtesy to Mr. Zinni, he will have waited too long.

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