Ramallah: How Long Can This Continue?

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An Israeli tank points its cannon at Yasser Arafat's headquarters in Ramallah

Saturday evening, when Israelis go out on the town celebrating the end of the Sabbath, has long been a favorite killing hour for Palestinian suicide bombers. This week was no exception, despite the presence of large numbers of Israeli troops in Yasser Arafat's offices and throughout Ramallah and other West Bank towns. A member of the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, linked with Arafat's own Fatah organization, detonated a bomb in a Tel Aviv coffee bar Saturday night, killing himself and wounding more than 30 Israelis in a stark reminder that even an Israeli military operation that has sparked worldwide alarm has not managed to stem the tide of terror.

The United Nations Security Council, with U.S. backing, had earlier called on Israel to withdraw from Palestinian towns and urged both sides to agree on a cease-fire. President Bush on Saturday demanded that Arafat do more to stop terrorism, but also urged the Israeli government to "make sure there's a path to peace." Both calls, right now, look like wishful thinking. Nobody had expected Ariel Sharon to embrace the Arab League's latest peace offer, and not only because it came the day after a suicide bomber had marked the start of Passover by killing 22 Israelis at a seder. The Saudi idea of peace — Israel withdrawing to its 1967 borders — has long been anathema to Sharon, who has always maintained that the territories captured in that year give Israel the "strategic depth" vital to its defense. Still, the ongoing battle in the West Bank and Gaza that now rages with renewed fury may eventually cause Israel to rethink that theory.

Israeli troops stormed Yasser Arafat's Ramallah compound early Friday, exchanging fire with his bodyguards. The object, said Israel's defense minister, was not to kill Arafat, but to "totally isolate" him. It was a compromise between cabinet hawks who favor expelling or otherwise disposing of the Palestinian leader, and doves who see that as posing even greater perils.

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Arafat remained defiant, vowing never to surrender and inviting Israel to martyr him. His fight, he said, would be carried forward by Palestinian children. And even as he made this vow, a teenage girl from the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade blew herself up in a Jerusalem supermarket, taking two Israelis with her. Elsewhere, an Islamic Jihad militant killed two Israelis in the Gaza settlement of Netzarim, and four more died at the hands of a Hamas gunman who infiltrated the West Bank settlement of Eilon Moreh. At least four Palestinians have been killed in the Israeli incursion into Ramallah, and it's likely that figure will climb in the days ahead — the incursion would last weeks, Sharon promised, even in the face of international criticism.

The new wave of violence that began with the carnage in Netanya looks to have scotched General Anthony Zinni's mediation mission, even though the Bush administration insists its envoy will remain on the job. Sharon was never going to take seriously Arafat's eleventh-hour cease-fire plea as Israel began initiating its response to the Passover bombing. The Palestinian leader has been unwilling to commit to Zinni's cease-fire plan, and his reluctance to take a firm, principled stand against attacks on Israelis may be partly a reflection of the fact that polls routinely find that upwards of 80 percent of Palestinians support acts of violence as a way of ending Israel's occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. So, the situation is likely to escalate quickly now back to the crisis levels that prompted President Bush to send his envoy in the first place. And that's bad news for a U.S. administration whose foreign policy objectives in the Middle East depend, at least in part, on calming the Israeli-Palestinian situation.

Although the Arab peace plan was never going to tempt Sharon — the Arab consensus is that peace won't be possible while he remains Prime Minister, an inversion of the widely held Israeli belief about Arafat — it does restate the question of Israel's long-term intentions for the West Bank and Gaza.

Sharon had opposed the Oslo peace process all along, precisely because he believed the territories captured in the 1967 war are essential to Israel's ability to defend itself — and Oslo was supposed to negotiate turning most of the West Bank and Gaza into a Palestinian state. But many of Israel's leading politicians and generals fear that holding onto those territories may represent an even greater threat to Israel's security. Sharon looks set to commit tens of thousands of troops to "pacify" the 3 million Palestinians who live in the West Bank and Gaza, and who are overwhelmingly supportive of guerrilla warfare and terrorism as means to end the occupation. If any outside army were looking to attack Israel right now, it would certainly be helped by the fact that a significant portion of Israel's military has to be deployed against an enemy within its current defensive perimeter. That has led many key Israeli political and military leaders to advocate separation from the Palestinians, by negotiating a withdrawal from most of the West Bank and Gaza and essentially building a wall between the two peoples. And as the war in the West Bank and Gaza, and in the streets of Israel's cities, intensifies in the coming weeks, so will the existential debate over the future shape of Israel's borders.