Israeli military action falls short of goal

Strikes fail to restore sense of safety but inflame Palestinian anger, despair

March 16, 2002|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

RAMALLAH, West Bank - Mahmoud Abu Rabee thinks he saved this city this week. The 12-year-old boy grinned as he described how he stared down Israeli tanks, throwing rocks at them.

Before dawn yesterday, the tanks left.

"They ran away," Mahmoud said, standing in the ruins of the Boy Scout office in the Amari refugee camp used by soldiers as a temporary base. "The Israelis are cowards. They are afraid."

The Israeli army withdrew from Ramallah and other West Bank cities early yesterday because the United States demanded that to help prepare the way for an American peace envoy. Israel's largest military operation in a generation ended, with neither the Israeli public nor Palestinians considering it a success.

Mahmoud wants to leave the squalor of the camp and, when he grows up, be a police officer or a doctor. By then, the lanky boy said, "the Israelis will be gone." He will fight them with rocks, he said, and when he gets older, guns.

The Israeli army said it withdrew because its mission had been accomplished. Troops arrested suspected militants, discovered bomb factories, confiscated weapons, barreled through refugee camps and killed dozens of gunmen during street-to-street fighting that also claimed many civilian lives.

But if the goal of the military action was to destroy the terrorist infrastructure and restore a sense of security for Israelis, the army seems to have failed.

Security in question

At Jerusalem's Aroma cafe, the management temporarily restricted business to takeout orders, to minimize the number of customers and make the cafe less attractive for would-be bombers. A sign at the door greets customers with this message: "We cannot guarantee your safety."

Ben Balbinder, the manager, ended the seating ban yesterday because the cafe could not afford the loss of customers.

The recent army initiative, the manager said, made little difference. "Every day both sides just shoot at each other," Balbinder said. "There has to be a better solution. This week, we've had more police then ever downtown, but we are just hiding behind this increased security. They can't stop anything."

Israelis speculated that efforts by U.S. peace envoy Anthony C. Zinni may be Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's last chance to secure a cease-fire before the public turns on him and demands new elections.

A poll released yesterday by the Israeli paper Maariv reported that nearly 70 percent of the people surveyed said Sharon had failed to make them secure, up 13 percentage points in a week. The newspaper said the margin of error was plus or minus 4.5 percentage points.

"Of course I'm scared," said Danny Azad, 23, who works behind the counter at the Riff Raff Cafe near the Ben Yehuda pedestrian mall. "Since the army invaded earlier this month, everything has just gotten worse. Everybody says it will get better; we just don't know when."

Doubts things will improve

The Palestinians are convinced that it will never get better. People in Ramallah make no mention of Zinni or express optimism that a cease-fire, if one begins, will last.

Hassan Yousef, 47, carried white plastic chairs from his house and lined them up on the sidewalk so his children could sit and watch funeral processions pass by. Five men killed fighting the Israelis were buried yesterday.

The road that runs in front of Yousef's house was scarred by tank treads. Utility poles were toppled, and storefronts across the street were pocked by bullets. Parked cars had been flattened under the weight of 70-ton tanks. Early Thursday, soldiers broke down Yousef's front door to search for militants.

"I told them we only had young children, but they came anyway," Yousef said. "They destroyed our houses, destroyed our city, and what are we supposed to do with this new peace initiative? Welcome the Israelis? When they do things like this, there is no chance for peace."

All over Ramallah, construction crews repaired streets gouged by Israeli bulldozers, patched ruptured sewer lines and restored water and electricity. Grocery shops and outdoor fruit stands were packed with customers, restocking pantries after being trapped in their homes by gunfire for three days.

Children raced around in bicycles, darting between stray tires and other debris, unfurling the Palestinian flag as if their city had just been liberated. Their parents picked among the ruins.

Despair gave way to anger as the funerals began. More than 10,000 people jammed the streets in front of the Abdul Nasser Mosque, where two bodies lay inside draped in the Palestinian flag. Outside was a pageant of militant banners - the green of Hamas, the red of the Popular Front of the Liberation of Palestine, the white of the Aqsa Martyrs Brigades.

Clutching an M-16 automatic rifle with a scope mounted on top, a 24-year-old fighter from the Amari refugee camp stood in the throngs. He wore military fatigues from head to toe. A black ski mask covered his face, a green bandana of Hamas covered part of this mask, and wrap-around sunglasses concealed his eyes.

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