Israel At War

THIS IS HOW YASIR ARAFAT deals with terrorism: careering through the muddy, storm-soaked streets of Gaza one evening last week, the crack troops of the Palestinian Preventive Security forces roared up to the four-story headquarters of the Islamic Association, trailed by enough cameramen to film the battle of El Alamein. Over the wall they leapt, unlocking the gate from the inside just in time to jump out of the way of a driver preparing to ram it with his jeep from the outside. Then a rush at the door, cameras rolling, a furious barrage of kicks by three soldiers in turn, until the door gives way to reveal -- a kindergarten, lined with class pictures, posters and balloons. If they expected to find terrorists sewing bombs into their undershirts, they were out of luck; the children were in bed.

And this is how the big countries deal with terrorism: they call a conference. To show how seriously the world takes the latest round of terror bombings in Israel -- which killed 55 people as well as the four young Palestinians who set them off -- this week's peace summit in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, enrolled more than 30 delegations in a few days. Among the heads of state: Bill Clinton, Boris Yeltsin, Jacques Chirac of France, Helmut Kohl of Germany, and representatives from Jordan, Saudi Arabia and perhaps even Syria. Their very presence will constitute a victory, Secretary of State Warren Christopher told NEWSWEEK: "It's easy to lose sight of the fact that a conference like this could not have been held four years ago. The same people would not have joined in a condemnation of terrorism against Israel." There will be cameras on hand there, too, but terrorists unawed by Arafat's ferociously mustached troops are unlikely to be swayed by a communique.

For the umpteenth time in Israel's short history, as Prime Minister Shimon Peres grimly noted last week, the nation finds itself at war -- and fearful over a "peace process" that has brought the battle to the streets of Tel Aviv. It is a war against shadows and ghosts, anonymous young men toting duffel bags packed with bombs, who are dead themselves before the glass of the shop windows shatters on the ground. Thus there are no prisoners to capture, no perpetrators to interrogate -- and also no shortage of volunteers among young Muslim fanatics seeking a shortcut to paradise and the 72 virgin brides reserved for martyrs. (A suicide bomber, says Karmi Gilon, the former head of the Israeli intelligence agency, Shin Bet, also "knows better than any timing device when to press the button" to kill the greatest number of bystanders.) The casualties in this war are of course mainly civilians, some of them children, who are diligently scraped from the sidewalks by Orthodox men, concerned that every scrap of Jewish flesh get a proper burial.

And Israel's improbable ally is Arafat himself, caught up in crisis the very week he convened the first elected legislature in the history of Palestine. One of Israel's motives in turning over Gaza and parts of the West Bank to Arafat was to let him deal with Hamas, the rebellious militant group that sprang up at the start of the Palestinian uprising. But even as Israel was handing over territories to Arafat, the task was getting tougher. Following the massacre at the Hebron mosque in February 1994 by the crazed Jewish settler Baruch Goldstein, Hamas's militant Qassam Brigades began targeting Israeli civilians, in an escalating series of attacks and reprisals that culminated in last week's ghastly explosions on a Jerusalem bus and a crowded street in Tel Aviv. Since these atrocities were orchestrated by militants living in areas under Arafat's control, Israel is demanding Arafat do something about it. "We are giving an opportunity -- maybe a last opportunity -- to the Palestinian Authority to live up to its commitments," Foreign Minister Ehud Barak told NEWSWEEK. "Outlaw these terrorist groups. Disarm them. Arrest them." Arafat, agrees a top Western diplomat, "has to be seen to shed some blood."

Yet Arafat, for all his swashbuckling guerrilla past, is remarkably cautious as a head of government. "Both us and the Israelis were caught with our pants down [by the bombings]," said Authority spokesman Marwan Kanafani. Of 13 suspected terrorists on Israel's wanted list, the Palestinians had arrested only five last week -- along with several hundred Islamic activists, many of whom fall in the category of "usual suspects." Arafat's police also captured Mohammed Abu Wardeh, a frightened 20-year-old student who admitted helping to recruit three suicide bombers for Hamas and by Wednesday had already been tried by a Palestinian tribunal and sentenced to life imprisonment. "I am very, very puzzled that [Arafat] has arrested only [five]," the diplomat said. "He knows where they are."

A few dozen elderly guns were seized and exhibited to reporters last week, but nothing like the arsenal Hamas fighters showed off at the funeral in January of one of their leading bombmakers, Yehya Ayyash. (Ayyash, known as "the Engineer," was killed by a booby-trapped telephone, presumably the work of Israeli intelligence; the recent bombings are at least partly in retaliation.) Mohammed Dahlan, Arafat's head of internal security, outlined to NEWSWEEK a five-point plan to destroy Hamas. It involves arresting its soldiers; cutting off its finances (which come, legally, from benefactors around the world, including the United States); controlling its media; taking over its educational, charitable and medical services, and replacing its prayer leaders with Arafat-approved clerics. That is an ambitious agenda for a government that can barely collect the garbage. But one part, at least, was underway last week, as worshipers at Gaza's largest mosque heard from a new preacher, Hassan al-Juju, who eschewed the ritual calls to drive the Jews into the sea and merely called on Allah to "let us take over all the Jews' money, property and houses." That ought to make the Israelis feel better.

Arafat's task is complicated by the fact that Hamas (itself only one of several militant organizations operating on Israel's borders) is far from a monolith. Its charter considers all of Palestine -- "from the river to the sea" -- as part of an Islamic trust "consecrated for future Muslim generations until Judgment Day," a view that leaves little room for misunderstanding about its ultimate aim, the destruction of Israel. But there are divisions about tac-tics. Political leaders in Gaza consider the bombings counterproductive, although they have no objections in principle to murdering Jews. The "outside" faction headquartered in Syria is more militant. And Arafat also faces the delicate problem that many of his key security men, including Dahlan, are friends and longtime colleagues of Hamas leaders. Israelis have always known that Arafat cannot appear too accommodating to Jerusalem without risking his own position, or even his life. They just don't care anymore.

This is all happening in the shadow of the upcoming Israeli elections, pitting Peres's Labor Party against the right-wing Likud bloc led by Benjamin Netanyahu. Buoyed by popular sympathy following the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin, Peres advanced the elections from next fall to late May. He appeared well ahead until the bombings began; Arab terrorism always benefits the hard-liners. In the first polls after the Tel Aviv bombing last week, Netanyahu had a small edge. Although the Likud leader told NEWSWEEK last week that as prime minister he would "continue with the peace process," he also reserved the right to send troops back into the Gaza and West Bank at any time "to act against those who would attack Israel." It's hard to imagine what would be left of the "peace process" if that happened. One person close to Arafat confided that the Palestinian leader actually expected military action by Israel -- and "he said he will fight them if they come in."

And it may yet happen, even without Likud in power. If the Palestinians fail to control Hamas, Barak warns, Israel would "consider violating areas under [their] control." Peres could not afford to look weak. Israel routinely closes the borders of the territories after terror attacks, keeping thousands of Palestinians from their jobs -- but last week for a brief period not even journalists or foreign diplomats could cross in or out of Gaza, and some staples such as flour and eggs were running low. Soldiers welded shut the doors of Islamic institutions and blew up the homes of the bombers' families. "I would think twice [before a bombing], if I knew that after my death, people close and precious to me would pay a very high price," Gilon said in defense of what he admitted was a "not very moral" tactic. But Israel has been doing this for years -- in the past, it deported suspected terrorists, a tactic that Gilon now says may be expanded to include relatives -- and if some bombers have been deterred, others have been made more bitter and desperate.

But that's how Israel fights terrorism, with reprisals. Arafat sends his police to raid kindergartens, and the United States sends equipment (eight EGIS bomb-detecting units dispatched by Clinton last week -- at $300,000 each, they're too expensive to use at American airports). The United States also obviously hopes that the huge show of presidential firepower in Egypt this week will reassure Israeli voters anxious about the peace accords. As far as the terrorists go, though, one of the few ranking Hamas officials willing to be quoted -- Mustafa Liddawi, a 32-year-old former medical student now living in Lebanon -- had already discounted the summit as irrelevant. "This summit will be held for the interest of the enemy and not for the interest of Arabs or Muslims," Liddawi told NEWSWEEK. "The struggle march of Hamas will never stop."

A six-month lull in terrorist attacks ended with four suicide bombings, taking the lives of scores and wounding the prospects for peace.

The New Disciples of Yehya Ayyash, a Hamas offshoot, begin a series of three suicide bombings by destroying a Jerusalem bus on the No. 18 route: 24 dead.

a hitchhiking post near Ashqelon is targeted; 2 dead.

Another Hamas suicide bomber strikes on the same bus route in Jerusalem. The bomb, like the others, is made of explosives and broken nails; 19 dead.

A fourth attack occurs outside Tel Aviv's Dizengoff Center. The Palestinian Islamic Jihad claims responsibility, but the bomber is not identified; 14 dead.