Israelis Unsure of What to Do Next

As they buried 33 victims of this week's terror attacks, grieving Israelis were wondering where to turn next in their efforts to crush the 21-month-old Palestinian uprising. 

Options being proposed ranged from not responding to attacks at all for a while — in order to gain world sympathy — to fully retaking the West Bank and Gaza Strip and expelling Yasser Arafat, with a more moderate military response in between. 

But there was a desperate quality to the debate that underscored the quandary born of 35 years of occupation and a decade of failed peace efforts: The West Bank and Gaza are now a hodgepodge of Palestinian zones, military areas and Jewish settlements, where the sides share only growing hatred and despair. 

"It seems like we've tried everything," wrote columnist Ari Shavit in the Haaretz daily. "Throughout these horrendous two years, we've tried far-ranging political concessions and military aggressiveness, too." 

Peace talks broke down in January 2001 after violence erupted. Palestinians did not accept an Israeli offer, backed by President Clinton, of a state in more than 90 percent of the West Bank, all of Gaza and a foothold in Jerusalem. The Palestinians held out for the right of millions of refugees and their descendants to return to Israel and balked at Israeli sovereignty over any part of the Old City of Jerusalem. 

Israel's military measures have gradually escalated since violence began in September 2000 — going from missile strikes on Palestinian police stations to their destruction, from pinpoint killings of suspected terrorists to takeovers of entire Palestinian autonomous zones once considered inviolable. 

But none of the measures has compelled Arafat to crack down on the extremists operating out of the areas Israel handed the Palestinian Authority in as part of the 1994 interim peace accords. 

If anything, the strikes against Arafat's security services, the travel restrictions on Palestinians and the increasing Israeli military presence in Palestinian areas seem to have increased Palestinian anger and lent more credibility to claims that Arafat's forces have been too decimated to act. 

"There is only one option [to] save lives of Israelis and Palestinians, to break this vicious cycle, and this option is a meaningful peace process," said Palestinian Cabinet minister Saeb Erekat, adding that "more incursions, more violence and more reoccupation and more settlements — we have been there before. Anger will breed anger, violence will breed violence." 

Arafat urged an end to attacks on Israelis in Thursday — but his words, a repeat of previous calls, impressed neither the Israelis nor the militants, including those in his own Fatah movement, who have made it clear the attacks will go on. 

Shavit wrote that Israel should announce that it will not respond to terror attacks for a week, and instead invite diplomats and humanitarian groups to view the carnage and demand the United Nations investigate. 

Israel would establish "a diplomatic 'Defensive Shield,'" Shavit wrote, a reference to Israel's recent offensive of the same name which resulted in the killing, arrest and expulsion of scores of wanted Palestinians but failed to stop the attacks. 

Many more Israelis, however, now call for a larger military operation. 

On Wednesday, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's government seemed to take a step in that direction, announcing a policy of long-term seizures of Palestinian territory in response to terror attacks. But by Thursday, that idea was coming under heavy criticism, and Defense Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer seemed to backtrack. 

"I am completely against all permanent seizure of territories," Ben-Eliezer said. 

"The intention is [that] if in a certain town we know there is a serious [terrorist] infrastructure which will take a short time to uproot, then we shall be present there, for as much time is necessary," he said. 

Ben-Eliezer said he opposed the growing calls by more hard-line Cabinet ministers — and Israel's military chief — to expel Arafat, or at least his aides. Ben-Eliezer warned the result could be "a bloodbath as we have never known." 

Such notions, however, are gaining support. 

"Nothing will help except truly radical actions," said Ehud Yatom, a former official of the Shin Bet security agency. "We have to go in with the whole army [and] detach the [Palestinian] leadership from its people — expel them all, from Arafat on down." 

Yatom also said Israel should expel the families of suicide bombers, especially parents who openly celebrate the actions of their children. 

"These fathers and mothers who are so proud and make kids only to strike at us — why should they sit among us here?" Yatom said. 

That kind of revelry and the widespread support among Palestinians for suicide bombers have sparked growing Israeli rage, reflected in a front-page commentary in the Maariv daily entitled "A suicidal, terrorist, insane society." 

"What kind of people are you, the Palestinians, who initiate, support and cheer on these cruel, inhuman suicide attacks?" wrote Maariv editor Amnon Dankner, until recently an outspoken supporter of the peace process. "You are a suicidal society that wants to ... explode on us to destroy us both." 

Erekat said such sentiments come from Israelis' inability to see the pain they inflict on the Palestinians with their military actions and seemingly endless occupation. 

"They can hide behind what they think the Palestinians are — but they need to see the reality of Palestinian suffering, the destruction of a whole way of life by the Israelis," he said. "They need to see the real tragedy and what their sons and daughters do in their uniforms."