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Sharon trying to regionalize Palestinian conflict by striking Syria

By Chris McGreal
Thursday, Oct 09, 2003,Page 9

It was, the Israelis insisted to the UN Security Council when not invoking Osama bin Laden, a small thing: a limited strike not aimed at Syria at all. But the international outcry against the deepest Israeli raid into Syria for 30 years, accompanied by warnings of escalation, will not displease Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. After all, he would like Israelis to believe that he has once again taken bold action against what he calls "the terror" and not to dwell on the erosion of past promises.

Sharon's critics are divided on whether Sunday's missile strike against a largely disused Palestinian base north of Damascus was an act of desperation by a government unable to deliver a much-promised victory over the Palestinians, or a cynical calculation to redefine and widen the conflict knowing that it will do little to curb attacks by Islamic Jihad or Hamas.

Last month, Sharon's Cabinet voted to "remove" Palestinian President Yasser Arafat as an "obstacle to peace" at a time of the Israeli prime minister's choosing. Some of his Cabinet, and much of the Israeli public, expected that moment to come with the next big suicide bombing.

Saturday's attack on a Haifa restaurant was such a moment. Among the 19 dead were three generations of the same family, and four young children.

The female Palestinian bomber chose the Jewish Sabbath to strike, and a weekend that includes the holiest day in the Jewish calendar, Yom Kippur.

Some of Sharon's ministers pressed him for an immediate Cabinet meeting but he resisted, knowing that he would have to fight off demands for a move against Arafat.

The official talk was mostly of exile but, given the Palestinian leader's pledge to fight it out, any Israeli attempt to seize him could result in his death.

Sharon long ago promised US President George W. Bush that he would not harm Arafat, and the Americans were swiftly in touch after the Haifa bomb to remind the Israeli government of their view that seizing the Palestinian leader would deepen the conflict.

With three of his ministers publicly baying for Arafat's blood, and the body of Israeli public opinion not far behind, Sharon had apparently backed himself into a corner. He sought to grope his way out with a response to the Haifa bomb that would defuse calls for him to follow through on the threat against the Palestinian leader.

"The military and political leadership, which converges because they are all generals, is simply helpless in the face of terror," said Yaron Ezrahi, a political scientist at Hebrew University.

"The attack [on Syria] was a kind of diversion. They realized getting Arafat would be too dangerous, and not practical. But if they are not going to get Arafat, then they thought the attack would calm the public, make it think the government is prepared to take big steps to fight terror," Ezrahi said.

"It's a frightening attack because it seems to be so influenced by the domestic political and psychological situation. They chose a target which is only symbolically related to the situation. It's like Bush: he couldn't get Bin Laden so he hit Afghanistan. We cannot get Arafat and we cannot really get Hamas, so we kick Assad in the ass," he said.

Opinion polls show that Israelis are increasingly sceptical of Sharon's claim that he can halt "the terror" by force. "Targeted assassinations" have apparently been less successful at curbing suicide bombings than Palestinian attempts, backed by some Arab and Western governments, to persuade Hamas that it has a stake in the political process.

The Haifa bombing will also shatter a few illusions about the much-vaunted "security fence" under construction through the West Bank. It has overwhelming public support among Israelis who believe that separation means security.

Israeli officials have tried to claim that the young woman bomber, Hanadi Jaradat, slipped into Israel through an area where the fence has yet to be completed. The truth is that while she did indeed cross the green line via a village where a secondary fence is awaiting construction, the main barrier is in full operation in the area with Israeli soldiers controlling every gate. Jaradat must have passed through one of them.

The attack on Syria might equally serve another purpose beyond easing pressure on Sharon to get Arafat.

The voice of the late Golda Meir, the prime minister during the Yom Kippur war, has been filling the airwaves again as Israelis reflect on the conflict 30 years later. In one interview, she says Israel has no responsibility for war because all the wars against Israel have nothing to do with it.

Similarly, Sharon seeks to persuade the world that the suicide bombings are not about occupation, Jewish settlements or the racially-driven seizure of Palestinian land.

Israel, he says, is a victim of international terrorism and therefore part of a much greater struggle between western civilization and Islamic fundamentalism.

The raid on Syria fits neatly into that paradigm, particularly with the US turning up the heat on Damascus to break its ties with Palestinian and Lebanese "terrorist organizations." But it also raises the specter of a wider conflict.

"What does Sharon do if he doesn't have a military solution?" Ezrahi said. "He fights the war he knows how to fight. They want to turn a war against terror into a war against a terror-harbouring state. This is what they know, and the Israeli army and air force compared to Syria is far superior. It's a way of regionalizing and globalizing the conflict," Ezrahi said.

Whatever the motives behind Israel's raid on Syria -- desperation or a calculated attempt to redefine the conflict -- it begs a disturbing question: What will Sharon do when he feels the need to escalate his response after the next suicide bombing?


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