Gaza bombing shattered illusions of a peace effort

Trudy Rubin

Gaza bombing shattered illusions of a peace effort

Philadelphia inquirer
Posted on Sun, Jul. 28, 2002
By Trudy Rubin

When an Israeli plane dropped a one-ton bomb on an apartment building in Gaza last week, it killed more than a brutal terrorist and 13 innocent Palestinian civilians.

It also blew up any illusions that Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon wants a cease-fire or a return to peace negotiations. And it shattered any pretense that the White House cares.

No one need mourn the death of Salah Shehadeh, the head of the military wing of the Islamist group Hamas, who had the blood of dozens of Israeli civilians on his hands. It is the timing and the manner of his death that are so shocking.

According to the Israeli press, the bombing took place just 90 minutes after another major Palestinian militia, the Tanzim, had agreed to announce a unilateral cease-fire. The cease-fire was the result of months of intensive negotiations, led by the European Union, about which top Israeli and American officials had been briefed. It was widely known that the Tanzim's cease-fire manifesto was to be announced Tuesday, and that Hamas was likely to participate.

But on Monday, at midnight, those prospects were blown away.

The bombing has set off a firestorm of debate among Israeli journalists and politicians. Alex Fishman, the veteran military correspondent of Israel's largest and right-of-center daily, Yediot Ahronot, asked on Wednesday: "Is it possible that somebody in Israel's high political and military echelons wanted to deliberately sabotage the chances for a cease-fire?"

Israeli officials say the decision to strike had nothing to do with politics. They say Shehadeh was ready to bomb again, and that the cease-fire proposal could not be taken seriously. "It's all psychological warfare," Sharon's spokesman Raanan Gissin said to the media.

But Western diplomats say the proposal was serious. So do top officials from moderate Arab governments who were in Washington last week. One told me that the Saudis — who have funded Hamas charity operations in the past — were now pressing Hamas to stop military action. They also are squeezing Syria to use its influence with Hamas.

We'll never know, now, will we, whether these efforts might have succeeded. We'll never know whether Hamas would have come on board, or Islamic Jihad, and whether they would also have ended killings of settlers. The timing of the Israeli attack, and the death of so many Palestinian civilians, made those questions moot.

We do know, from his words and deeds, that Sharon doesn't want new peace talks. He believes that Israel must hold on to the West Bank and Gaza indefinitely and must end terrorism by force, not by cease-fires.

The problem with this strategy is that it won't work.

Israel has militarily reoccupied seven out of the eight major West Bank Palestinian cities and kept 700,000 people under a 24-hour-a-day curfew for weeks. But these prisonlike conditions can't be maintained indefinitely; already, U.S. aid officials are reporting widespread malnutrition among Palestinian children. A permanent curfew is not sustainable, nor would it be able to end terrorist attacks.

Yes, Yasir Arafat failed his people by rebuffing peace offers by the previous Israeli government of Ehud Barak. Yes, the Tanzim, an arm of Arafat's Fatah movement, made a horrible mistake by opting for violence in 2000, in hopes of getting a better deal at the negotiating table. Yes, the Tanzim made an uglier mistake by authorizing its Al-Aqsa Brigades to compete with Hamas in suicide bombings.

But if Tanzim leaders were signaling that they recognize their mistakes, if they were willing to shut down the violence and persuade Hamas to do likewise, Sharon was reckless to ignore their offer.

As for the Bush administration, its limp response to the Gaza bombing makes a mockery of its stated policy. President Bush has called on Palestinians to stop their violence and change their leaders, at which point he will help them get a Palestinian state. The Tanzim offer, which bubbled up from the Palestinian grass roots, not down from Arafat, would have done both. It would have pushed forward a younger generation of leaders before Palestinian elections in January.

But the White House has responded to Sharon's air strike with nothing but spin, denouncing it as heavy-handed. There are no indications yet that Bush recognizes how dangerous Sharon's policies are for Israel and the region.

Is the President too transfixed by Iraq or November elections to pay attention? Not clear. But as he fiddles, and Sharon bombs, the violence will go on.

Contact Trudy Rubin at 215-854-5832 or