Amid carnage, another path

August 08, 2002

HAMAS HAS evened the score -- and then some -- for Israel's bombing of a Gaza apartment that killed the founder of its military wing and 14 others, the majority of them children. In five days, the militant Islamic group has killed 16 people ---- including five Americans -- in attacks on an Israeli bus and at Hebrew University in Jerusalem.

In the midst of the carnage, Israel's army intensified its siege of northern Palestinian cities and reinstituted the demolition of Palestinian houses owned by militants' families.

But, as Hamas vowed to press ahead with more attacks, Israel's defense minister kept his scheduled meeting with top Palestinian security chiefs for a discussion that could possibly lead to a common end beyond the torment of bombs and guns.

It centered on the proposed withdrawal of Israeli troops from areas of the Gaza strip and the city of Bethlehem, where violence has been less prevalent, and the resumption of security control in those areas by Palestinian officials. That conversation must take place, even amid the recurrent violence.

Palestinian Interior Minister Abdel Razek Yehiyeh, who oversees security matters, and senior security adviser Mohammed Dahlan should be given a chance to show what they can do to control militants. A success on this one small front might dispel the prevailing view that Palestinian leaders aren't serious about reforms and a peace initiative.

At the same time, Israel must be willing to keep its commitment to withdraw from other cities if the Palestinians carry out their charge. An agreement in principle has been reached, but the Palestinians and Defense Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer have not concurred on the specifics of a withdrawal. The escalation of the conflict has left Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon open to attack from both sides of the political spectrum in Israel.

It also has meant further degradation of Palestinian life, and there's no telling how far Israel will go in demolishing Palestinian houses now that the state Supreme Court has upheld the army's right to bulldoze homes without warning.

Israel's prestigious leading newspaper, Ha'aretz, has characterized Mr. Sharon's strategy of combating Palestinian terror as "this ongoing Sisyphean effort." It is an apt analogy. Israelis continue to die at the hands of Palestinian terrorists, despite the army's success in arresting some suspected bombers and its crushing offensive to thwart others.

But beyond that there is no end game in sight.

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