Friday, November 24, 2000 | return to: international


Frustration mounts in Israel as army still held at bay

by GIL SEDAN, Jewish Telegraphic Agency

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JERUSALEM -- These are good days for the followers of Meir Kahane, the militantly anti-Arab rabbi who was murdered 10 years ago in New York by a Palestinian.

Although Kahane's Kach movement has been outlawed here for several years, Kach veterans, reinforced by young followers, have recently staged open demonstrations demanding a tough response from the Israel Defense Force to the ongoing Palestinian violence.

Walls throughout the country have been smeared with the slogan "Kahane Was Right," decorated with the movement's emblem, a fist inside a yellow Star of David.

Noam Federman, one of the movement's leaders, has been visiting Jewish settlements in the West Bank, encouraging settlers to go out and fight.

"You should know that if the IDF does not protect you, you must protect yourselves," he said at a recent meeting with settlers in Beit El.

"You must go out and shoot," he said.

Although Kach is still a marginal force, even among Jewish settlers, the re-emergence of the ultra-nationalists after many years of underground activity reflects a frustration and confusion widespread in Israeli society.

Many Israelis, particularly settlers living in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, feel that the country has lost its sense of direction and that its leaders ignore the recommendations of the military for operations that would tilt the balance in Israel's favor.

Some of their frustration boiled over Monday after a terror bombing of an Israeli school bus in the Gaza Strip killed two Israelis and wounded nine others, including five children.

Many Israelis were soon calling on Prime Minister Ehud Barak to drop what he has been calling his "policy of restraint" when dealing with the ongoing Palestinian violence.

The mounting frustration was evident when settlers who gathered to pray at the site of the attack attached a sign to the bus' shattered windshield: "Prime Minister, You Have Blood on Your Hands."

The Palestinians are calling the violence the Al-Aksa intifada, harking back to when Israeli opposition leader Ariel Sharon visited the Al-Aksa Mosque on Jerusalem's Temple Mount in late September.

Israelis, by contrast, are now calling it a war of attrition.

But is it really a war?

U.S. Middle East peace envoy Dennis Ross met separately last week with Israeli and Palestinian leaders, and reportedly made some progress in getting the two sides to agree to talks aimed at reducing the violence and returning to negotiations.

Even after Israeli helicopters retaliated Monday for the bus attack by striking targets in Gaza City, there were reports of behind-the-scenes contacts taking place between Israeli and Palestinian officials about a possible resumption of the peace process.

In light of such reports, Israel and the Palestinians seem like a married couple that has exchanged blows -- and yet is still considering ways to fix the relationship.

This has had a direct military implication: For all its might, the IDF has been unable to stage an all-out war against people who could still be Israel's partner in peace.

This has led some critics to charge that the government has tied the army's hands.

Government officials respond that they have adopted a policy of restraint because they believe that a stronger response could lead to an escalation of violence that may prove uncontrollable.

Even if the IDF received the go-ahead for an all-out war, it would be virtually impossible to fight, given that it would not be facing an army, but rather a combination of armed street gangs and children throwing stones.

At least for now, the government has opted for a mostly defensive policy.

The Palestinians have marked as their prime targets the settlements and the army in the territories. The army's chief task has been to protect itself and the settlements.

As a result, a thick veil of military defense blankets the settlements, and movement between the settlements is often done with military escorts.

The army has also gone on the offensive from time to time, as it did with Monday's retaliatory helicopter strikes in Gaza City.

While such actions may help the national morale, they are not likely to tip the scale in Israel's favor.

Is there anything that could?

Military experts speak of massive bombings, cutting off electricity and water to the Palestinians and limiting the movement of Palestinians within the self-rule areas: In other words, make the Palestinian civilian population a target.

But this is exactly the sort of escalation that Israel has been trying to avoid.

"We must exert pressure on the Palestinians until they call for a cease-fire," the IDF chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Shaul Mofaz, said this week.

He did not, however, spell out how this could be achieved.

The IDF's deputy chief of staff, Maj. Gen. Moshe Ya'alon, is reportedly a driving force in the army for more drastic and daring actions against the Palestinians.

Despite the differences within the top military echelons regarding how to proceed, the army has stuck to its mostly defense posture.

As a result, the strongest army in the Middle East now waits for politicians to save the day.

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