This weekend's appalling terror attacks in Jerusalem and Haifa, while not unexpected, have thrown the Middle East into the biggest crisis since the breakdown of negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority (PA) in the summer of 2000. They mark the largest single loss of life in Israel since a similar wave of suicide attacks in February and March, 1996, which led, in part, to the downfall of then-prime minister Shimon Peres.
The spate of bombings in Jerusalem and Haifa reflects a concerted attempt by groups such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad to maximize civilian casualties. For example, Sunday's assault in Haifa included new tactics. Those of us who use buses in Israel always presumed the safest place was at the back. A potential suicide bomber was expected to detonate his device in the centre of the bus to ensure the greatest carnage -- or else while getting on the bus if the driver challenged him. In Haifa, the bomb was detonated from the back of the bus, but only after a second bus had come close behind.
It is quite clear the military strategy of Islamic Jihad and Hamas is to kill as many Israelis as possible, and to bring the same fear to Israeli population centres that the terrorists claim exists in Palestinian cities. There remains, however, a high degree of ignorance about the aims of these groups, their motives and the background of their suicide bombers.
The first myth assumes these organizations seek only to destroy Israel. In effect, if the West allowed Israel to be sacrificed, these groups would disband. Wrong. Radical Palestinian Islamic groups view the destruction of Israel as only the first stage in a holy war against the West and international capitalism. Does this sound familiar?
The second myth is that Hamas and Islamic Jihad will eventually come to the negotiating table, and accept any deal that Yasser Arafat and the PA reach with Israel. To date, there is no sign this would happen. Indeed, every time a ray of hope appears in the peace process Hamas or Islamic Jihad strike to extinguish that light.
The third myth is that all suicide bombers are operating on ideological grounds, and that they are similar to the ruthless, but educated bombers who carried out the Sept. 11 attacks in the United States. They are not. Research being carried out in Israel reveals a complex set of circumstances that lead certain individuals to be identified by Hamas and Islamic Jihad as potential human bombs.
In some cases, the bombers have had a terminal illness. They are generally poorly educated and from lower-income groups. Once identified, the bombers' families are told of the generous package they will receive if the operation is successful. Many states and individuals appear willing to finance such packages. Iraq is known to offer financial assistance to the families -- usually paid in U.S. dollars -- and so do individuals from countries such as Saudi Arabia.
The stereotype developed by the Western media of the bomber being a highly committed and religious figure is therefore simplistic. Yes, some of the bombers act out of a simple hatred for Israel, and most do believe in their cause. The majority, however, are manipulated by evil men, with a dark agenda.
Israeli security forces have had many recent successes in preventing such devastating attacks from taking place. The obvious problem, however, is that it takes only one group to breach the security net to cause the kind of massacre we saw this weekend.
The main Israeli problem lies with intelligence. This was the security price Israel paid for signing the Oslo Accords with Yasser Arafat. Today, it is very difficult for Israeli security forces to operate in areas under PA control. Israel can no longer, for example, have the number of paid informants on the ground it did previously. Sure it can block roads, send tanks into areas controlled by the PA, but these measures offer no real substitute to hard intelligence on the ground.
Areas under Mr. Arafat's control have been nicknamed "Arafatistan" by right-wing Israeli politicians. The charge is not as far-fetched as it once appeared. Mr. Arafat does little or nothing to address the problem of Islamic radicals. He has consistently stated he cannot dismantle their infrastructure without causing a Palestinian civil war.
Here U.S. President George W. Bush has a key role to play. He needs to recognize that in the long term, Hamas and Islamic Jihad endanger the United States just as much as Israel, and that Israel, far from being the cause of international terrorism, is the front line against it. Once he has come to these conclusions he should issue the same kind of ultimatum to Mr. Arafat that he did to the Taliban. In doing so, he can remind Mr. Arafat that his administration supports the creation of a Palestinian state, but only one that lives in peace with Israel, not one that allows attacks to be mounted from areas under its control. In short, Mr. Arafat needs to be told he cannot have his cake and eat it too.Neill Lochery is director of the Centre for Israeli Studies at University College in London.
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