The Terror That Will Not Quit

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An Israeli border policeman stands guard in downtown Jerusalem

The alert reached the Jerusalem police mobile war room at 3 p.m. Monday. The green bus --borrowed from an Israeli transport company and fitted inside with computers, phones and desks — pulled up at the Haas Promenade, a high overlook with a view of the Old City. Officers of the police, the army and the Shin Bet, the domestic spy agency, rushed to the parked bus to coordinate the hunt. The target: Mohammed al-Ghoul, 22, a student who, according to an intelligence report, had been dispatched by a Nablus cell of the militant group Hamas with orders to blow himself up among Israeli civilians in Jerusalem. Exactly where and when al-Ghoul would strike, the men on the bus didn't know.

The officials in the war room worked through the night. They were aided by officers of the border police, who put more than 1,000 of their troops on Jerusalem's streets on the lookout for al-Ghoul, and by agents from undercover units, including the expert Unit 33 of the Jerusalem police. As Jerusalem slept, conflicting intelligence reports trickled in. One said al-Ghoul had entered the city; another suggested he was still in the West Bank. As the sun rose over the golden Dome of the Rock, the officers knew the riskiest period had arrived: the hours of the busy morning commute. Just before 8 a.m., they heard a deep blast. The noise carried three miles from where al-Ghoul blew himself up on a bus like the one housing the makeshift war room. Nineteen Israelis died with him. Now, after 17 hours of fruitless hunting, the war-room bus pulled away from the promenade and sped to the site of the carnage.

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As the suicide attacks multiply, Israeli security forces face a daunting task. Even as they hunted al-Ghoul, they were tracking intelligence that four other Palestinian suicide bombers were trying to enter Jerusalem. Israel's Operation Defensive Shield, a series of raids on West Bank towns that ended in late April, yielded a bonanza of intelligence from the 1,700 Palestinians arrested as terrorist suspects. The information has helped Israel thwart 86% of attempted bombings, according to Defense Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer. But those that slip through are devastating. In the wake of Defensive Shield, Israelis have suffered 64 major terror attacks claiming the lives of 83 victims, including 33 last week.

The day after al-Ghoul's attack, another bomber blew himself up at a bus stop on a busy Jerusalem crossroad. In the war room, officers were juggling eight separate alerts about suicide attackers trying to penetrate the city. After rushing to the scene at French Hill Junction and stopping his car about 60 yds. short of the blast site, a security officer turned to see a dismembered body that had been blown past where he had parked. "All the attacks we've prevented are worth nothing," the horrified officer said, "if such an awful thing still happens." The next day, two Palestinian militants crept into an Israeli settlement in the West Bank and shot dead five Israelis, including a mother and three of her children.

The surge in terrorist attacks since Defensive Shield has come as no surprise. Despite Israel's well-equipped forces and its highly developed intelligence capabilities, its security experts know they cannot stop the bombers entirely. When militants are as motivated as the Palestinians are now, when their inspiration is only heightened by Israel's counterattacks on Palestinian communities, when the terrorists' technology is as simple as strapping home-brewed explosives onto willing human bombs, deterrence is impossible and prevention a matter of hit or miss.

Still, it is the job of the security services to do what they can, and based on their recommendations, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has promised to retaliate even more harshly than he did with Defensive Shield. With a new operation, code-named Determined Path, Sharon promises to reoccupy parts of the West Bank ceded to Palestinian control under the Oslo peace accords — not for a matter of days, as in the past, but indefinitely, says Sharon, "as long as terror continues." It's unclear whether he can pull it off, either logistically or politically. But if he does, it will be the most dramatic reversal of the Oslo process since the first agreement was signed in 1993.

The latest violence has flummoxed the White House's diplomatic efforts. The Bush Administration had hoped at last to cease issuing conflicting signals and deliver a tough, pragmatic diplomatic agenda. The President had planned to deliver a speech last week promising U.S. recognition of a provisional Palestinian state in the territory now under self-rule, provided that Yasser Arafat's Palestinian Authority first met a series of strict conditions, including pushing democratic reforms and cracking down on terrorist networks. But after al-Ghoul's bus bombing, which Bush learned about in a 5 a.m. phone call from National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, and the subsequent attacks, the White House postponed the speech and began revising its language. "The tone of the speech has changed," says a White House official. "What was already pretty tough on the Palestinians has gotten even tougher."

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