Mideast: A Cease-fire in Name Only

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Palestinians sort through the debris of a bombed Hamas office

Anyone who was actually trying to rekindle the flames of Israeli-Palestinian violence couldn't be doing a better job than the leaders on both sides right now. Israeli forces on Tuesday killed eight Palestinians in a strike on a political office belonging to Hamas, the militant Islamist group whose suicide bombers have wrought havoc in Israel over the past decade. Two of the casualties were senior Hamas political leaders, while reports suggest that two Palestinian children playing outside the building at the time of the attack were also killed. The attack is almost certain to provoke a response from Hamas, inevitably in the form of new carnage wrought by suicide bombers inside Israel. The cycle of violence, which had slowed in response to Western efforts at brokering a cease-fire in recent months, is once again quickly gaining momentum.

Israel's latest attack follows Monday's air strike on Palestinian police headquarters in Gaza and an explosion that killed six militants of Yasser Arafat's own Fatah organization — a blast Palestinians blame on Israel, but Israelis and some Western reporters suggest may have been the result of the detonation of a bomb they had been building. On a day that saw a number of shooting incidents in the West Bank and Gaza, Israel also tightened its blockade of Palestinian territories in what it called a preemptive action against terror attacks. The latest Israeli actions follow two attempted bombing attacks in Jerusalem as well as a mortar attack on a Jewish settlement in Gaza. And Sunday's clashes at Jerusalem's holy sites — Israeli police entered the Muslim compound atop the Temple Mount after Palestinian youths threw stones down on Jewish worshippers gathered on the plaza below, at the Western Wall of Judaism's holiest temple — have added gasoline to the embers.

Despite a frenzy of international diplomacy over the past three months in pursuit of reviving the peace process, the latest round of violence confirms the limits of the current cease-fire. Each side had responded to the Mitchell Report and other mediation initiatives principally as a means of outflanking its adversary in the battle for international public opinion. But the cease-fire they concluded existed in name only — in practice there was a policy of restraint by both sides designed to extract maximum diplomatic advantage, but little evidence that either side is anticipating a resumption of the peace process any time soon.

Now the dynamic may be shifting once again. The immediate diplomatic objective of the Palestinian leadership is the deployment of international observers to monitor the implementation of the Mitchell Report. The U.S. endorsed the Palestinian proposal three weeks ago — but only on the condition that both sides accept such observers. The Israelis immediately ruled out the possibility, but the issue remains on the diplomatic chessboard. Renewed clashes, such as Sunday's fracas on the Temple Mount, would certainly keep diplomatic pressure alive on the observer issue, particularly because the fate of Jerusalem's holy sites is a pan-Arab concern. Clashes in Jerusalem inflame anger on the streets of Arab capitals, whose regimes are then compelled, in the interests of domestic stability, to press Washington to do more to rein in the Israelis.

On the Israeli side, the policy of restraint following the atrocity at a Tel Aviv disco two months ago has won important international gains. But it has not solved the basic crisis presented by the intifada — Israelis, particularly in the West Bank and Gaza, have still been dying every week, and that creates tremendous pressure on Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. Sharon was elected on promises of restoring Israel's security, and even in his own cabinet calls are growing to deal a decisive blow to Arafat's Palestinian Authority.

The danger right now is that neither side sees dialogue with the other as a means of securing its vital interests. And, at the same time, the current stalemate is inherently unstable. That combination may be raising the temptation for leaders on both sides to try and break out of the strategic logjam by applying greater force.

with reporting by Jamil Hammad/Bethlehem