Fears Grow That Mideast Strife Has Crossed a Dangerous Line

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Can "dancing at the edge of a cliff" go on indefinitely without finally tripping up and going over the brink?

Hyperlink: http://www.latimes.com/news/printedition/asection/la-000062866aug02.story?coll=la%2Dnews%2Da%5Fsection

Fears Grow That Mideast Strife Has Crossed a Dangerous Line

Conflict: Israeli attack on Hamas leadership and calls for revenge are seen as the beginning of an explosive new phase. Sharon defends action.

By MARY CURTIUS, LOS ANGELES TIMES STAFF WRITER Copyright Los Angeles Times, Fair Use for Educational and Research Purposes Only 2001 August 2

JERUSALEM -- Israel's slaying of two senior leaders of the Hamas Islamic movement pushed its 10-month-old conflict with the Palestinians into a new and explosive phase Wednesday, with both sides saying they may be unable to pull back from the brink of wide-scale conflict.

Thousands of Palestinians shouted for revenge at the funerals of the Hamas leaders and six others--including two children--killed in Tuesday's helicopter gunship attack in the Palestinian-controlled West Bank city of Nablus.

In Israel, security forces went on high alert, bracing for the retaliatory attack that Hamas promised would come. Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's government rejected international criticism of the killings, vowing to continue its policy of hunting down militants. Throughout the day, scattered clashes and shooting incidents were reported in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

In Hebron, the only West Bank city where administration is divided between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, Israeli troops and Palestinian gunmen battled for hours and Israel lobbed tank shells into the Palestinian-controlled areas. A Palestinian was shot dead in the fighting.

In the Gaza Strip, Palestinians fired dozens of mortar shells into Israeli settlements, but no injuries were reported.

Nearly everyone seemed convinced that worse is to come.

Israel's attack on senior political leaders, who belonged to a movement that rejects the notion of a negotiated settlement between Israel and the Palestinians, united Palestinian factions in calls for revenge. If militants succeed in carrying out a large-scale attack on Israelis, it could trigger the Israeli government's approval of a massive retaliation against the Palestinian Authority.

"It is time to stop at the edge of the precipice," Yossi Sarid, left-wing leader of Israel's parliamentary opposition, wrote in the mass-circulation daily Yediot Aharonot.

Unmoved by harsh criticism of the Nablus killings from the U.S. government and others, Sharon called the operation "one of Israel's most important successes." His government insisted that the Hamas leaders who died when missiles slammed into their downtown offices had orchestrated 10 bombing attacks on Israeli cities since September and were planning more.

Israeli army Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Shaul Mofaz told reporters that "had we known that children would be hurt, we wouldn't have attacked the target." Israel, he said, does not "want to come to war, but we have the right and the obligation to fight terrorism."

"From now on, authorization will be given to attack more targets that are identified as the 'operational heads of the snake,' " wrote Zeev Schiff, a military analyst for Haaretz newspaper. "A cycle of extremism has been created: a series of Palestinian terrorist activities are answered by a sharp retaliation, either in method or in the targets of the attack."

But Israeli critics warned that Israel has crossed a red line. By moving an echelon above the bomb makers, the government has precluded the already remote possibility of obtaining a cease-fire with the Palestinian Authority and virtually ensured more Israeli casualties in the fighting, which has claimed the lives of more than 600 Palestinians and Israelis.

"One must remember that what Hamas loses in ability, it makes up in motivation, and the question is which is more dangerous," wrote political analyst Hemi Shalev in the daily Maariv. "Only the terror attacks of the future will tell whether the benefits of the assassination of the Hamas senior figures are not outweighed by the loss of the lives of dozens more Israelis."

The Palestinians, too, "will stop functioning within limits which they had previously stayed within," warned Haaretz security analyst Reuven Pedhatzur. "We are caught up here in a whirlpool. . . . We are taking step after step toward a kind of whirlpool which will bring us to a war that nobody wants."

Indeed, Hamas leaders vowed that they will now target Sharon, Foreign Minister Shimon Peres and other senior Israeli political leaders.

"Hamas now needs to demonstrate that it still has the ability to attack," said Ziad abu Amr, a Palestinian legislator and academic in Gaza.

The Nablus attack, Abu Amr said, makes it impossible for the Palestinian Authority to move against Hamas, as Israel has demanded that it do. The militant Islamic movement lost prestige and influence during the last seven years of Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations, but it has grown in popularity during the uprising because of its willingness to carry out suicide attacks against Israelis.

A senior member of the Fatah movement of Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat on Wednesday endorsed attacks on Israelis. Speaking on a Palestinian Television talk show, Samir Masharawi, a colonel in Fatah, said the Palestinians "have to protect ourselves and to protect our cadres by hitting the security of the others--this is the only way to stop the attacks."

A series of bus bombings unleashed on Israel by Hamas in 1996, after Israel killed the group's bomb maker, Yehiya Ayash, was "a good lesson to the Israelis," Masharawi said. "I insist this is a legal defense for us because it is the only way we can do it."

-- Robert Riggs (rxr.999@worldnet.att.net), August 02, 2001


The end draweth nigh for the PA

-- Steve McClendon (ke6bjd@hotmail.com), August 03, 2001.

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