In Mideast, a Culture of Revenge

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Palestinian boys train at the Ain el-Helweh refugee camp in Southern Lebanon

The Israeli-Palestinian roller-coaster ride of violence looks set to take a precipitous dive, and there may be little its passengers can do to avert the plunge. Avenging the dead, after all, is a principle central to both cultures, and it has given the current wave of violence a self-sustaining life of its own. Israel's security cabinet met Wednesday with a view to abandoning its self-styled "policy of restraint" in dealing with the Palestinian intifada, following the killing of four Israelis in drive-by shootings on Monday. And Palestinian gunmen continued to confront Israeli soldiers and settlers Wednesday despite reports that Yasser Arafat had called on his supporters to stop shooting.

The notion that Israel has pursued a "policy of restraint" would be greeted with bitter cynicism by a Palestinian population that has lost almost 200 people in the past seven weeks as the Israelis have deployed everything from rubber-coated bullets to tank artillery and air-to-surface missiles against Palestinian militants. But the fact remains that the Israeli military is capable of a far higher degree of violence than it has unleashed thus far, and Prime Minister Ehud Barak's government is under increasing domestic pressure to up the ante. Israel has once again cordoned off Palestinian towns throughout the West Bank and Gaza, and cabinet ministers and military officials suggested harsher responses were now under consideration.

Arafat may well be hoping to cool the situation now, to allow him to resume negotiations from a stronger diplomatic position. But it remains an open question whether he'll be able to douse the fires of revenge. The Palestinian leader's cease-fire efforts over the past three weeks have been openly defied, not only by the Islamist militants of Hamas and Islamic Jihad but also by the rank-and-file militiamen of his own Fatah organization. Fatah had called for a mass uprising beginning Wednesday to drive Israeli troops and settlers out of the West Bank and Gaza.

But even as the confrontation escalates, the leaders on both sides already know the outcome — at some point, Israelis and Palestinians will be forced by their inability to wish, or blow, each other away, to return to the negotiating table. But it may take many months, and many lives, before they once again resign themselves to the inevitability of coexistence based on the principle of land for peace.