Chronicle of a Massacre Foretold

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Israeli police take fingerprints from the body of Palestinian gunman

The meager signs of progress recently recorded by Middle East peace brokers have once again been obliterated in an all-too familiar orgy of terror. The tragedy of the six Israelis killed in a Palestinian suicide attack on a Bat Mitzvah in northern Israel Thursday may be compounded by the fact that it was foretold.

All week long, Israeli media and some politicians had fretted over the wisdom of last weekend's assassination of Raed Karmi, a local militia leader of Yasser Arafat's Fatah organization wanted by Israel for attacks on Jewish settlers in the West Bank. And sure enough, Fatah's Al Aqsa brigades claimed responsibility for Thursday's carnage at Hadera, saying the attack was in retaliation for the killing of Karmi. Israel blamed the attack directly on Arafat, and the response was swift — Israeli F-16s destroyed Palestinian Authority security headquarters in the town of Tulkarm, in what may only be the first installment of what Prime Minister Ariel Sharon promised would be "a lesson the Palestinian Authority will never forget."

Grim predictability

A day before the Hadera attack, a political analyst in the Israel daily Haaretz had set the scenario: "There was no need for a degree in political strategy to make an educated guess yesterday about how this week would go," wrote Amos Harel. "From the first reports about the assassination of Tul Karm's Raed Karmi, any Israeli or Palestinian alumnus of the past 15 months could come up with an accurate prognosis of what would happen: Revenge by Karmi's Fatah colleagues in the West Bank, and a sharp rise in the number of shooting incidents in the West Bank, particularly in the northern sector; a harsh military response by Israel in the territories followed by renewed Palestinian attempts to conduct suicide bombings inside the Green Line (the border that divides Israel from the West Bank)."

Harel's prescient words underscore the fact that the cease-fire proclaimed by Arafat last December, which had been relatively successful, has now been voided on the ground. Even the Israeli military acknowledged at the New Year that there had been a sharp decline in violent incidents since Arafat's televised speech before Christmas. But a week ago the militant Islamist organization Hamas signaled the end of its own undertaking to suspend actions inside Israel, by attacking a military post on the Israeli side of the border with Gaza. Then came Karni's slaying — Israel insists he was planning terror attacks — and the Fatah-linked Al Aqsa Brigades proclaimed that "the hoax of the so-called cease-fire is cancelled, cancelled, cancelled."

The prospects are grim

Arafat's organization officially insisted that it remains committed to the cease-fire, but it was the organization's own rank-and-file members that claimed responsibility for the latest terror attack inside Israel. And the sharp uptick in violence over the past week will further darken prospects for any resumption of dialogue — already grim in light of suspicion over Mr. Arafat following the discovery of an arms shipment bound for the Palestinian territories from Iran.

Western governments concerned to avoid a new escalation of hostilities will likely pressure on Arafat to do more to rein in the militants. But the apparent collapse of his most strenuous effort to date suggests that even if he can muster the political will to press the case, the Palestinian leader will find it increasingly difficult to impose it on the streets. Hamas derisively asks what Arafat has achieved for the Palestinians in exchange for the cease-fire, and even grassroots leaders of his own organization ostentatiously, and publicly, defy his exhortations. Indeed, it is worth noting that the Hadera killer, like a number of recent suicide attackers, was a former member of the Palestinian Authority police force — many of the very security operatives Arafat must rely on to impose his will may share the sentiments of those they're being ordered to round up. Thus, when Arafat arrests a leader of the radical PFLP on Israel's wanted list, he's forced to tell his own people that the man is simply a "guest" of the Palestinian Authority and will be held for only two days.

Despite Sharon's vow to teach Arafat the lesson of his life, the Israeli leader has few good options. While another round of attacks on PA targets will punish Arafat for failing to stop the latest attacks, they are unlikely to change the basic deadlock. Few Israeli commentators these days believe that, almost one year after being elected on promises to stamp out Palestinian violence and ensure Israeli security, Sharon has a political or military program that can transform the violent face-off into a decisive defeat of the intifada. While the term is still used, the current violence has little in common with the original intifada, in which masses of youths armed mostly with stones and molotov cocktails confronted Israeli troops in West Bank towns.

Violence begets violence

Today's violence is increasingly assuming a pattern of a war of attrition, waged by shadowy armed guerrilla groups who mount guerrilla and terrorist attacks both in the West Bank and Gaza and inside Israel itself. One notable effect of the shift not lost on Israelis is the fact that this has begun to equalize the casualty count between the two sides, compared with the early days of the current uprising in which Palestinian deaths outnumbered Israelis' by five-to-one or more. Palestinian militants have begun to adopt the strategies that Hezbollah used to drive Israel out of Lebanon, hoping to maintain a steady casualty count that will eventually become politically unsustainable for the Israelis and force a retreat from the West Bank and Gaza.

U.S. hopes of getting the two sides back to the negotiating table will likely be temporarily forgotten in the escalation of violence that looks almost inevitable in the wake of this week's events. But renewed fighting will also raise pressure on Washington to do more to avert catastrophe.