Revenge in the Middle East

August 1, 2002

Wednesday's deadly terrorist bombing in a crowded Jerusalem cafeteria was as predictable as it was tragic. From the moment Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon gave the go-ahead for an F-16 to bomb the apartment building of a Hamas terror mastermind in Gaza last week--a raid that killed its intended victim, Salah Shehadeh, but also 14 other people, including nine children--it was clear that the assassination would be avenged.

On Tuesday a Palestinian teenager blew himself up at a falafel stand in downtown Jerusalem, and two Israeli settlers were slain when they entered a Palestinian village to sell diesel fuel. Israeli authorities warned that 60 terrorist attacks by Palestinians were believed to be in the works.

After Wednesday's lunchtime blast at the Hebrew University's Mount Scopus campus, Hamas, the radical Islamist group that had vowed to avenge the killing of its military chief in Gaza, claimed credit.

Such acts of retaliation and revenge have become an all-too-familiar pattern in the Middle East. Whenever the forces of reconciliation seem close to making even small progress, someone on one side or the other torpedoes it.

Less than two hours before the Israeli raid on Gaza, the Palestinian Tanzim militia approved the final text of an open letter declaring a unilateral cessation of attacks on Israeli civilians, and calling on other Palestinian groups to do the same "without any hesitations or preconditions." The communique, shelved because of the Gaza attack, was the product of weeks of back-stage work supported by diplomats from the European Union, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Egypt.

Tanzim is allied with Yasser Arafat's Fatah faction. But there were indications that the more radical Hamas also was leaning toward some kind of cease-fire.

Israelis are justifiably skeptical that the communique would have been sincere, or would have had much effect. Still, there are other signs that political and diplomatic efforts have not been abandoned despite the surging violence.

- Israeli-Palestinian negotiations resulted in Israel handing over $15 million in withheld tax revenues to the cash-strapped Palestinian Authority this week, the first of three promised installments.

- Palestinian Interior Minister Abdul Razek Yahye recently announced a new security plan-- well received by Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres--under which the Israeli army would withdraw gradually from reoccupied West Bank cities to be replaced by Palestinian police.

- Peres met this week with Jordanian King Abdullah, who is due to see President Bush at the White House Thursday.

- Secretary of State Colin Powell is set to meet with a delegation of Palestinian officials in Washington next week.

Yet the ongoing pattern of strike and counterstrike seriously imperils these fledgling bilateral, regional and international efforts. There is no reason to think the pattern will end soon. That said, someone has to break the cycle.

Copyright © 2002, Chicago Tribune