Tit-for-Tat Strikes Highlight the Depth of Israeli-Palestinian Strife

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Israeli officials remove bodies from the scene of the Natanya suicide attack

The most chilling dimension of Friday's violence that killed at least 16 Israelis and Palestinians and wounded more than 100 is that it came as no surprise. First a terrorist attack by a Hamas suicide bomber killed seven Israelis at a shopping mall in Netanya; then at least nine Palestinians were killed when Israel retaliated by, for the first time in the current conflict, using F-16 fighters to bomb Palestinian targets on the West Bank. Save for the times, places, weapons and targets, the attacks were almost predictable. And while the Israeli government blames the Palestinian Authority and the Palestinian Authority issues a routine denunciation of the murder of civilians, ordinary Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, having buried a number of their own this week, will be at best indifferent to the outrage committed in Netanya — even more so after the air strikes. The unrelenting violence that has followed the collapse of the peace process has left Israeli-Palestinian mutual hatred at an all-time high.

Israel had intensified attacks on Palestinian security forces over the past two weeks as part of a strategy to make the cost of continuing the uprising unbearable for the Palestinian Authority, and the latest strikes have ratcheted up the stakes. Israel holds Yasser Arafat's administration responsible for attacks such as the one in Netanya by failing to curb terrorist activity in areas under its control. The collapse of the peace process and the rising tide of violence has seen Arafat's security forces unwilling to act against Hamas, Islamic Jihad and other militant groups they had previously policed — indeed, the rank and file of Arafat's own Fatah organization tends to see the Islamists as brothers in arms, and has been coordinating activities on the ground in Gaza with those groups. And while suicide bombings inside Israel are the signature modus operandi of the Islamist groups, Fatah militants and members of Arafat's security forces also have been engaged in shooting and mortar attacks in Gaza and the West Bank.

There are, of course, also internal Palestinian dynamics at work — Hamas is facing a growing challenge for primacy among the radical groups from cells established in Palestinian areas by the Lebanese guerrilla group Hezbollah, which creates pressure on Hamas to escalate its deadly activities. And all of the radical groups, who believe armed struggle is the only way to drive Israel out of the West Bank and Gaza, share an interest in sabotaging renewed efforts to forge a cease-fire.

Diplomatic jockeying over a cease-fire appeared to be intensifying on the eve of the latest attack, with the Palestinian Authority endorsing the recommendations of the report by former Senator George Mitchell on the causes of violence and Israel moving towards a compromise on the vexed question of settlement construction in the West Bank and Gaza. The current cease-fire proposals in both the Mitchell report and an initiative from Egypt and Jordan both require a freeze on construction of Israeli settlements as a prelude to talks. While Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, longtime champion of the settlement movement, rejects the idea of acceding to a settlement freeze, his government has moved to find a compromise. Initially, they suggested settlement expansion would be confined to "natural growth" of existing settlements; now Foreign Minister Shimon Peres has added the rider that no further Palestinian land would be seized and that any construction activity would occur within the boundaries of existing settlements. Even though Palestinian spokesmen rejected the Israeli compromise as "deceitful," the question of terms for a cease-fire is clearly now in play.

But Friday's terror tit-for-tat will eclipse any talk of cease-fire terms. And recent history suggests that Palestinian attacks won't stop, no matter how heavy the consequences. Israel believes it can pummel the Palestinian Authority into halting violence, and refuses to talk about anything else until it ends; the Palestinians believe they have no incentive for stopping attacks on Israelis in the absence of a peace process. And so Israelis and Palestinians remain trapped in a strategic cul-de-sac, and no amount of violence is likely to blow a hole through to the other side.