"It's the escalation that Israel has been warning of, in its repeated threat that it will 'know what to do' if violence persists. Throughout the current intifada, the Israelis have been saying they know the individuals behind this. The Israelis blame Fatah's Tanzim militia for most of the violence. Hussein Abayat, the guy who was killed, was fairly powerful in his neighborhood, and the Israelis believe he was behind the attacks on the Gilo neighborhood, which had so frightened Israeli public opinion.
"But the Israelis may be doing this to send a message to more senior Fatah leaders such as Marwan Bargouti and Hussein Sheikh, saying 'We know where you live.' They're hoping to frighten those guys off and make them think twice about the consequences of attacks on Israelis, regardless of what they're saying I public. But whether this will actually make them think twice remains to be seen. Bargouti's office in Ramallah was previously rocketed when he wasn't there. Now they've got one of his guys, and they're saying 'It could have been you.' But there's some doubt about whether the Israelis would try to kill a leader as senior as Bargouti, and he may call their bluff. After all, if the Israelis started going for Palestinian national leaders rather than just local ones, it would create an entirely different ballgame."
But what's the broader strategy here when things are escalating?
"It's clear now that no one on either side really knows where to take this. A lot of Palestinian leaders and intellectuals are wondering about their exit strategy and about what they hope to get out of the new intifada. Many are saying privately that they don't have an answer when they go to their leaders with this question. They're just hoping to pressure Israel into making the next move. At the beginning, Hussein Sheikh told us it was the 'battle for final status,' saying the uprising was necessary to strengthen the Palestinians' negotiating position. But right now that looks unlikely."
Doesn't attacking Fatah militants make it even more difficult for Arafat to reestablish his authority?
"It might make it more difficult, but the Israelis say they did it only after they'd decided that the cease-fire Arafat had agreed with Shimon Peres was not being observed. But the Palestinians will see it as a serious escalation because the killing occurred in territory that's supposed to be under Palestinian security control, in which Hussein Abayat is supposed to be free to drive around in a car with guns. But the Israelis complain that he was using that territory as a base from which to attack them."
So are both sides now hunkering down for a protracted low-intensity conflict?
"Perhaps, although things may be brought to a head soon. Arafat had vowed to declare a state between November 15 and the end of the year. Palestinians don't really care much about the date, but are more concerned about what that state will consist of. Arafat may put off his decision, but if he goes ahead and declares it unilaterally, the Israelis will probably cut his state off at the knees."
Does the current political uncertainty in the U.S. affect Israeli thinking?
"Not really. They don't believe there would be that much difference. They anticipate that either Gore or Bush will maintain U.S. support for Israel, but will be a lot more hesitant about being as directly involved as President Clinton has been. But they don't anticipate any turn away from Israel while it's under pressure."