Ramallah Lynching Leaves Peace in Pieces

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A lynching in a dusty West Bank town may have not only dashed the fragile hopes for ending the current violence in the Palestinian territories; it may also symbolize Yasser Arafatís increasing inability to rein in his own people. After two Israeli soldiers in the custody of the Palestinian police were beaten to death by a mob in Ramallah, Thursday, Israel ratcheted up the ante by firing rockets that destroyed the police station where its men had been held, and at targets in Gaza City, where Arafat was meeting CIA director George Tenet to discuss ways of ending the violence. By dayís end, Palestinian cities throughout the West Bank and Gaza were under siege by Israeli helicopters and tanks, the Prime Minister Ehud Barak was moving to establish a "national emergency" government with his hawkish Likud opposition. And Israeli and Palestinian spokesman were in agreement on one thing — the peace process was dead. Of course they typically hastened to add that it could be revived, but directed all blame for its demise at the opposing side.

The latest outbreak came a day after Israeli officials and diplomats noted that violence had been abating, and casts doubt over whether international diplomatic efforts will bring the current confrontation under control any time soon. The Israelis felt compelled to respond swiftly and brutally to the killing of two of their soldiers whoíd been under the protection of Arafatís police, but the air strikes will only harden Palestinian resolve and inflame militants in Arafatís territories to raise the ante themselves. Midday prayers in the Palestinian mosques Friday are unlikely to pass peacefully.

The U.S. expressed alarm both at the mob killing in Ramallah and at the scale of the Israeli response. But the image most troubling to all those hoping to broker a new peace in the region may have been the incident in Ramallah. Palestinian police had apprehended a group of four Israeli soldiers in civilian clothes — on an undercover mission, say the Palestinians; lost on their way to their post, say the Israelis — and had taken them to the police station in the town. But as word spread that Israelis had been captured, a raging mob of up to 1,000 Palestinians converged on the station, brushed past Arafatís officers and beat the Israelis to death. The salient point is that when confronted by an angry Palestinian mob, the local police were incapable of restraining them — although they fired into the air in vain hope of dispersing the mob, once forced to choose between killing fellow Palestinians or allowing Israeli captives to die, the requirements of the peace process came a poor second for Arafatís police. Itís a sign that no matter what his intention, the failures of the peace process and the rising tide of conflict may leave the Palestinian leader unable to impose the terms of any new agreement on his enraged population. Then again, as Israeli tanks and helicopter gun-ships pounded Ramallah and Gaza, reviving the peace process seemed to be the last thing on anybodyís agenda.