Why Israel May Wait to Retaliate for New Attacks

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Israeli policemen inspect the remains of a car that exploded in Jerusalem

After yesterday's shooting of a 10-month-old Israeli baby in Hebron and today's bombings in Jerusalem, are people in the region bracing for a new escalation of violence?

The Israeli authorities are weighing their response in light of the fact that the Arab League summit begins today in Jordan, and Arafat is there desperately trying to get money from Arab states. To help make his case, he wants two things to happen: He wants the Palestinians to be seen to be fighting back strongly against Israel, and he wants a massive Israeli response to stir up Arab sympathy and prompt them into giving financial aid. So while the Israelis are vowing to respond very forcefully to the killing of the 10-month-old, army sources say they're planning their retaliation, but that they won't actually do anything until the summit ends on Friday. Of course, it remains to be seen whether that will remain the case following the two bombs today, and the potential for more bombs tomorrow.

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has spoken previously of shifting Israel's emphasis from collective punishment of Palestinians to very targeted punishment of those deemed responsible for attacks on Israelis. How will the latest attacks affect that outlook?

The collective punishment of Palestinians in the form of the closure of their areas is still largely in place. Sharon has said he won't loosen that in any significant way until the violence stops. So he's saying he's prepared to end collective punishment, but only Arafat can make that happen, and Palestinians should address their complaints to Arafat. But you have to understand that the impact on most Israelis of settlers' being killed has become fairly limited.

Why is that?

Because many people inside Israel see the settlers as people who've chosen to live in places that are obviously dangerous. Although no Israelis would wish them to be hurt, many believe they're consciously taking a risk in being there. But when it's a 10-month-old that's killed, it breaks through the perception that when someone is killed in a settlement, or driving to a settlement, that they were somehow asking for it. The 10-month-old's killing has struck Israelis very hard, because even with the acknowledgment that those who live in Hebron are putting themselves in harm's way, a 10-month-old doesn't make that kind of choice. And at least according to the Israeli army's version, the baby was deliberately targeted by a sniper.

So with the Israelis vowing to avenge the baby's death and Palestinian groups setting off bombs in Jerusalem, are we set for a new escalation of violence?

Israelis are aware that any kind of major retaliation that is not specifically targeted would be an extreme form of collective punishment, and wouldn't do any good at all either in terms of claming the situation or improving Israel's international position. So the most likely response would be something along the lines of targeting local militia leaders for assassination. Those tactics are not welcomed by the international community, but it's not like bombing the neighborhood. Settlers in Hebron and their supporters in parliament have called for Israel to retake the Abu Sneineh hill in Hebron from which the sniper fire was directed. Although it's unlikely, they may still consider it because the settlers in Hebron are in an exposed position because the hill overlooks their community, and if the settlers themselves decide to retaliate, things could spiral dangerously. But in general the response is more likely to be guided by the perception that the gunmen want Israel to come down hard on civilians, because that makes Israel look bad.