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Syria hit shows Israel is stuck

By SUSAN TAYLOR MARTIN
Published October 7, 2003

In recent months, Israel has gotten tough on leaders of the radical group Hamas, based in the Gaza Strip. One narrowly escaped death in a missile strike on his car and another lost a son when an Israeli bomb flattened their house.

By contrast, Ramadan Shallah, head of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, has spent years in the safety and comfort of Damascus, Syria, where he orchestrated attacks against Israel seemingly without fear of retribution.

But Shallah, a former University of South Florida instructor, may finally be feeling some heat.

On Saturday, his group claimed responsibility for the suicide bombing that killed 19 at a popular restaurant in Haifa. Less than 24 hours later, Israeli rockets heavily damaged an alleged Palestinian Islamic Jihad training camp near Damascus. It was the first time in 30 years that Israel had struck inside Syrian territory.

It looked like a bold response to a horrific attack. But in reality, Israel chose a target with maximum visibility and minimum risk.

Despite outrage about Israeli "aggression" and dark hints of war, neither Syria nor any other Arab country is about to challenge the overwhelming military strength of the Israel Defense Forces. Nor did Israel face recrimination from its closest ally, the United States.

Washington itself accuses Syria of harboring terrorists and allowing guerrilla fighters to cross its border into Iraq. And after sending American troops 7,000 miles from home to attack terrorist targets in Afghanistan, the Bush administration can hardly criticize Israel for striking a neighboring country it considers a threat.

Israel's response to the Haifa bombing clearly was dramatic. Yet it also showed how Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's government painted itself into a corner with last month's announcement that it planned to "remove" Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.

Before that bombshell, many Palestinians were growing sick of what they considered their corrupt and ineffectual leadership. In interviews with dozens of people in Gaza and the West Bank, I heard repeated grumbling that Arafat's Palestinian Authority had squandered millions in development funds even as 60 percent of Palestinians were sinking into poverty.

Many Palestinians also deplored the suicide bombings that have tainted their quest for statehood, alienated Israeli moderates and sparked violent Israeli reprisals.

"Nobody accepts people exploding on buses and in cafes," says Abdul Latif, an engineer who works on Palestinian water projects. "There should be no violence on either side - here 99 percent of Palestinians who are innocent are being punished."

Yet the minute Israel threatened to get rid of Arafat, even Palestinians who couldn't stand him felt obligated to rally to his side.

"We don't like him, but we don't want Israel telling us who our leaders should be," said Nazih Shuki, a graduate student in Jerusalem.

That left Israel in a bind. If it killed Arafat, it would turn him into an martyr. And if it sent him into exile, it would make him an international star.

Thus in the wake of the Haifa bombing, Israel couldn't immediately go after Arafat even though it considers him the true instigator of terrorism. Instead, its only option was to increase pressure on groups like Palestinian Islamic Jihad, a tactic that often results in more, not less, terrorist activity.

Israel's outrage at the Haifa attack is apt to lead to "a vicious circle of reprisal and counter-reprisal," Uzi Benziman wrote Monday in the Israeli daily Haaretz.

The problem still facing all parties - Israelis, Palestinians and the United States - is the same problem that doomed the 1993 Oslo peace accords and may well finish off the 2003 "road map to peace." A small but radical faction of Palestinians refuses to recognize Israel's right to exit, while Israel continues building Jewish settlements on land intended for a future Palestinian n state.

"The violent conflict stems from these obstinate starting positions," Benziman wrote.

On the Israeli side, a series of prime ministers has done nothing to staunch the flow of Jewish settlers into the West Bank even though the settlements have inflamed Palestinians and added to Israel's already heavy security burden.

On the Palestinian side, efforts to crack down on terrorism have been half-hearted at best, hamstrung by the very real fear that the militants might kill them, too.

"Standing on every available soapbox, (chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb) Erekat warns that he himself and his colleagues in the PA leadership would be the first ones to receive house calls by these armed militia men," wrote Israeli columnist Akiva Eldar.

Other commentators question whether Palestinian leaders can be expected to stop terrorism when Israel with all its tanks, mortars, missiles and F-16s has failed to make a dent in the resistance.

If they want to break the impasse, Israel and Washington eventually might have to do what the British did with the Irish Republican Army: negotiate with men considered terrorists.

Indeed, Israel already is negotiating a complicated prisoner swap with none other than Hezbollah, the Iranian-backed group responsible for killing scores of Israelis as well as dozens of Americans in Lebanon in the '80s. What then, commentators ask, is the difference in talking to Arafat, Hamas or Marwan Barghouti, the charismatic West Bank leader now in an Israeli prison?

Unlike Arafat and Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia, Barghouti seems to enjoy genuine and widespread support among Palestinians. He is relatively young at 43, speaks fluent Hebrew (from a previous stint in Israeli custody) and is seen as honest and incorruptible.

In an interview last year, Barghouti accused some Palestinian leaders of failing their people and said change needs to come soon through democratic means.

Israel alleges that Barghouti headed the al-Aqsa Martyrs' Brigade, which emerged soon after the start of the Palestinian intifada or uprising in 2000. The brigade seeks an independent Palestine, but unlike Hamas, does not want an Islamic state.

"I am proud of the intifada," Barghouti said recently at his trial on charges of orchestrating attacks that killed 26 Israelis.

"I am proud of the resistance to Israel occupation. ... Today three years have passed and I hope the Israelis have learned that the Palestinian people can not be brought to yield with force."

A verdict is expected by year's end; Barghouti could get life in prison. But he apparently expects to be part of the prisoner swap.

"Don't worry," he told a prosecutor, "I'll get out soon."

- Susan Taylor Martin can be contacted at susan@sptimes.com

[Last modified October 7, 2003, 02:33:49]


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