Violence flared again in the Middle East last week, with a tit-for-tat confrontation in Gaza that briefly threatened to escalate into a wider war. Although the incident ended with condemnation of Israel, both at home and abroad, for what was widely viewed as a military and diplomatic fiasco, the lesson remains the same as it has throughout the now seven-month-long faceoff between Israel and the Palestinians: Unless restraint is practiced, both sides will suffer even more. But no one appears to be ready to do more than pay lip service to this essential commitment.
What happened was that on Tuesday the Palestinians mortared a Jewish settlement, and almost immediately Israeli forces penetrated and briefly reoccupied a small area of Gaza that had been turned over to the Palestinian Authority.
The incursion represented a violation of the Oslo Accords and, as such, exceeded any reasonable response. In the most strongly worded statement directed against Israel since the new Bush administration took office, U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell called it “excessive and disproportionate.”
Within 24 hours, the Israeli forces withdrew, although Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon insisted that this was not done as a result of U.S. pressure. The Israeli Army said that its forces had intended all along to leave quickly after the punitive raid. Doubt has been cast on this, however, by the earlier statement by area commander Brig. Gen. Beit Hanoun that Israeli forces might remain in Gaza for “days, weeks or months.” Yet whether Israeli troops pulled out because of U.S. condemnation or not, the raid proved a failure, not just politically but militarily as well. Palestinian mortar shells have again been fired at Israeli targets.
Mr. Sharon defended the action, which he did not admit was excessive, by saying that priority must be placed on protecting the lives of Israeli citizens. This was communicated to U.S. President George W. Bush.
The invasion was a wakeup call for Washington. While it supports Israel, the Bush administration has made it quite clear that it does not want to get involved as a go-between in trying to end the Palestinian uprising on terms favorable to both parties; it particularly does not want to continue the commitment to peace of former President Bill Clinton. But after Mr. Sharon showed last week that he would not hesitate to take actions that could dismember the peace agreement and trigger a much wider conflict than the Palestinian intifada, Washington learned that it can no longer remain disengaged.
The administration called for restraint and everyone agreed, but no one is foolish enough to believe that restraint will prevail under provocation. It is unclear whether the Bush administration — after rapping Israel’s knuckles last week — intends to become more active in trying to reduce the level of violence through diplomatic means. But if it does not, it is inviting a crisis that will be even harder to resolve than this one.
Besides the incursion into Gaza, Israel also chose last week to pick a quarrel with Syria. Damascus remains the dominant influence in Lebanon with 35,000 troops in the country. It is also the backer of the extremist Hezbollah guerrilla group. In retaliation for a Hezbollah attack in which one Israeli soldier was killed, Israel bombed a Syrian radar installation in Lebanon last Monday, igniting Syrian wrath.
Syrian President Bashar Assad said his country could not stand by “with arms folded,” strongly hinting that Syria would retaliate against Israel. At the same time, Mr. Assad said he is taking an interest in “meeting demands” by his people to extend support to the Palestinians in their struggle against Israel. This would seem to put another spin on the cycle of violence.
The United Nations Security Council called the strike and counterstrike “a dangerous escalation across the Blue Line between Israel and Lebanon.” Last year, Israeli forces withdrew from southern Lebanon, after a presence of 22 years, and took up positions behind the U.N.-established “‘Blue Line.” The Security Council has now called for “maximum restraint” by all parties involved. It is wise advice, but it is likely to fall on deaf ears. If there was any chance for Israel and Syria to reach a settlement concerning the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, these hostile flareups have pushed it further into the future.
No one can expect any movement toward a comprehensive peace settlement in the Middle East with attacks and counterattacks increasing and tensions rising. The first task now is to sharply reduce the level of violence, in the hope that this can lead to renewed and sustained dialogue between Israel and the Palestinians and between Israel and Syria. And this truly will require restraint by all sides.
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