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Number of suicide attacks drop sharply { May 2 2008 }

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Israeli tactics collide with peace process

By Isabel Kershner
Published: May 2, 2008

NETANYA, Israel: Suicide bombings in Israel have dropped off so significantly that the nation's security officials now dare to speak openly of success. But the very steps they are taking to thwart bombers appear to collide head on with the government's agenda of achieving peace with the Palestinians.

It is a classic military-political dilemma. The progress in stopping suicide bombers, the vast majority of whom cross into Israel from the West Bank, has brought enough quiet for Israel to resume peace talks with the Palestinian leadership there.

But the current calm is fragile, and to maintain it Israeli security officials say they must continue their nightly arrests and sometimes deadly raids in the heart of the West Bank - tactics at odds with a peace process that envisions a separate Palestinian state, an eventual Israeli withdrawal from much of the West Bank and, in the meantime, a gradual handover of authority to the Palestinian police.

"The price of staying out" of the West Bank, said a senior Israeli military official, "might be one that we don't want to pay." The military's faith in its efforts comes across in charts showing a steep decline in suicide bombings - from a high of 59 in 2002 to only one in 2007, and one so far this year.

"It is far from a coincidence," said Colonel Herzi Halevi, commander of the Israeli Army's Paratroops Brigade, which is at the forefront of the military campaign in the West Bank, where the borders are longer and more permeable than those in Gaza, the other Palestinian territory. "It is not that the terrorists did not try enough. They did. We know."

The military's sea change came after a particularly bloody spring in 2002, when a Palestinian from the West Bank traveled 14 kilometers, or 9 miles, across Israel and walked into the modest Park Hotel in the coastal resort town of Netanya, blowing himself up in the dining hall on the eve of Passover.

The Park Hotel massacre, as it became known, was the climax of a bloody month in which 130 Israelis died in suicide bombings and other attacks. Within days Israeli forces invaded most of the Palestinian cities of the West Bank in an operation named Defensive Shield, wresting back control from the Palestinian Authority security forces who were supposed to be laying the foundations for a nascent Palestinian state.

Six years later, the glass doors at the entrance on the Park Hotel were flung wide open to catch the slightest breeze. In the lobby, a teenager casually played a video game while a tourist collected a hairdryer from the reception desk. Scores of guests had made reservations for the Passover meal.

Still, Israel is taking nothing for granted. The country will soon be going on heightened alert in the run up to the 60th anniversary celebrations in May, and security officials are loath to surrender the option of being able to strike at suicide bombers and their dispatchers at any time, on Palestinian turf.

Israel also started building the West Bank security barrier in 2002, describing it as an answer to the suicide bombers. Made up mostly of fences and some sections of wall, the barrier is now about two-thirds complete. Security officials say it has proved very effective as an aid, but they do not rely on it alone.

"You cannot play from the touchdown line," Halevi said.

The Israeli prime minister, Ehud Olmert, has managed to straddle the seeming contradictions between the peace process and the military's continued campaign in the West Bank, largely by putting off the question until a later date.

Despite the urgings of the administration of President George W. Bush to reach a peace deal by the end of the year, Olmert has said that his goal in talks with the Palestinians is to try to define the basic parameters for a Palestinian state, not to reach a comprehensive agreement that will be put in place any time soon.

Instead, Israeli security officials point to what they call the basic conditions for safeguarding the country. According to a new study published by the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, a policy research institute with conservative leanings, those include a willingness to bear the political costs of military offensives, good intelligence and control of the territory from which terrorists operate.

In theory, Palestinian security forces would assume the responsibility of preventing such attacks, and a test of that approach will come this summer when a 600-strong battalion of the Palestinian National Security Force completes a U.S.-financed training program in Jordan. Defense Minister Ehud Barak has said that the recruits will be deployed in the northern West Bank city of Jenin, once considered the capital of the suicide bombers. Additional Palestinian forces already have started deploying in the city this month in preparation.

But leading Israeli security figures, past and present, seriously doubt that the Palestinian police will have the capacity or the will to fight terrorism in the foreseeable future.

"It is an old na´vetÚ that nobody believes anymore," said Yaakov Amidror, a major general in the reserves who wrote the study.

Nor has the precedent in Gaza inspired confidence. After Israel unilaterally pulled out its troops and Jewish settlers in 2005, some hoped that with Western support, the tiny coastal strip might become a model for a future Palestinian state.

Instead the Islamic militant group Hamas took over and the rockets from Gaza went from hitting Sderot, a small Israeli border town plagued for years by rocket fire, to the major city of Ashkelon, 16 kilometers up the coast.

In recent months, the army has been back in Gaza on an almost daily basis, searching for the militants and carrying out arrests. The security hawks fear that losing control of the West Bank would turn the Israeli cities of Netanya and Tel Aviv into Sderot.

But the resurgence of suicide bombings is still seen as the primary threat. "They are the most dangerous type of terrorist," said Major General Shachar Ayalon, deputy commissioner of the Israel police, whose special units who also operate in the West Bank. "Human bombs can change direction, can change targets. They are not easy to stop."

Ayalon speaks of "building circles of security" in and around Israel to slow the bombers' advance. Among them he lists the West Bank security barrier, and the hundreds of roadblocks and manned checkpoints that dot the West Bank, which the Palestinians and the international community want to see removed.

Even more important, he said, is to target those who send the bombers "and put a threat on their life."

There appears to be little disagreement within the security establishment, and the government seems to be acting largely in line with its recommendations. Still, there are Israelis who differ. Some attribute at least part of the reduction in suicide bombings to fatigue and self-interest on the part of the terrorist organizations. The suicide bombing in the desert town of Dimona in February, in which one woman was killed, was the first claimed by Hamas in more than three years.

Some former officials advocate relying more on the pragmatic Palestinian leadership in the West Bank. "We have to take a risk," said Ilan Paz, a retired brigadier general at the Economic Cooperation Foundation, a research institute in Tel Aviv that supports the peace process. "Otherwise we will have Hamas later and we will have an even bigger risk to take."

The alternative to controlling all the territory, Paz said, is to reach an agreement with a partner, namely the Palestinian leader, Mahmoud Abbas, who wants to keep the peace.

A few weeks ago the Palestinian Authority interior minister, Abdel-Razak al-Yahya, visited the training camp in Jordan and told the trainees that their mission was to go after "the thugs and gangs and all those who would damage the Palestinian national project," according to a senior Western official who was there.

Israel sees some value in the Palestinian policing efforts against local criminals, but has made it clear that when it comes to fighting terrorism, overall security responsibility will remain in Israel's hands.

"First they have to prove themselves, and then we can pull out," a senior Israeli military officer said.

Palestinian officials have accused Israel of intentionally trying to thwart and belittle their security effort by continuing with army raids in areas where the Palestinians are active, as in Nablus. "Because if we succeed there will be no need for Israeli troops to stay in the occupied territories," the Palestinian authority's foreign minister, Riad Malki, said recently.

Those wanting to advance the peace process, including the United States, hope that Israel will gradually wind in its security net in the West Bank while the Palestinians spread out theirs.

Nobody knows how long that will take. The battalion now training in Jordan is meant to be the first of five.

But for now, there are no more dollars allocated for the program, and the money has run out.

Gazan mother and 4 children killed { April 29 2008 }
Israel attack kills reuters cameraman { March 2008 }
Israel rehearsed bombing attack on iran { June 20 2008 }
Israeli settlers attacked palestinian family { June 13 2008 }
Number of suicide attacks drop sharply { May 2 2008 }
Palestinians stop fighting priests in Bethlehem { November 2007 }

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