Letter From Jerusalem

If a new war began today between Israel and the Palestinians, and many voices on both sides are saying that it did, then it remains for the moment contained.

Ramallah, where two Israeli soldiers were brutally lynched this morning, and where Israel started a series of ferociously precise helicopter rocket attacks this afternoon, is about as close to Jerusalem as the Bronx is to Manhattan. It's the city--the borough--just down the road. Yet as the violence escalated in downtown Ramallah today, downtown Jerusalem was calm and went about its business. Traffic flowed and jammed and flowed as ever. Children scampered home from school with backpacks full of books, crowded buses carried people from their offices to their houses. For the moment the only sign of the impending apocalypse down the road was that radios were turned up even louder than usual, and people listened more attentively. Jerusalem is hoping the war won't come. But the city isn't confident that it won't; in the past, war has begun here in much calmer times.

Ever since bloody protests and skirmishes began two weeks ago, in the wake of Likud leader Ariel Sharon's provocative visit to the precinct of Muslim holy sites in old Jerusalem, Israelis have worried that Palestinian riots would give way to Palestinian terror. And understanding perhaps too well the Arab capacity for revenge, Israelis have preempted violence with violence. Palestinians, including Israeli Arab citizens, have had to face the Israeli military, the police and armed civilians. A handful of Israeli Jews have been killed and more than 90 Palestinians have died.

On Monday night in Hatikvah, one of the poorest working-class neighborhoods of Tel Aviv, a mob attacked a restaurant that employed Israeli Arabs, beating them and burning the apartments where they stayed. Many people in the neighborhood said that any Arab among them might plant a bomb. "We told them to leave," said a vegetable seller in the nearby marketplace. "But they wouldn't go."

Today, even before the lynching and the retaliation, the Israeli government was denouncing Yasir Arafat's decision to release members of the Islamic movement Hamas that he had jailed for their part in terrorist attacks inside Israel during the 1990s. Israeli security forces saw the action as a clear signal that Arafat was opening the way for new terrorist attacks. In Israel and in Palestine, voices for peace and reconciliation are meek or silent, or suddenly militant and angry.

Yet despite the many deaths, the lynching, the retaliation, the rhetoric--this war is still primarily a war of nerves. A slim hope remains that calm might be restored, and that sanity will prevail. "Life is more complex than a television broadcast," Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak said tonight when asked why he did not push his retaliatory attacks further. If the terrorist bombings Israelis fear can be prevented, then Barak might be able to sustain that argument with his own people, and build a complex peace. For his part, Arafat's tactical goal is not apocalyptic, but diplomatic: he wants to involve the United Nations, or at least European leaders, in a negotiating process where he feels an Israeli-American tag-team has him cornered. He may think the international community will only support him forcefully after his people are massacred. He may think that Palestinian martyrdom can unite the Arab world behind him at the summit scheduled in Egypt next week. That has been his experience in the past, when he was besieged and his people bombed in Lebanon and elsewhere. Yet Arafat may still hope to find another way.

The diplomatic space is narrow. United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan, British Foreign Minister Robin Cook, European Union envoy Xavier Solana--and the American administration--are all trying to pry a truce out of it. From a truce, some calm might come, and then, perhaps even peace. But for now, Ramallah is a shattered city, full of young men ready to take the war down the road. And in Jerusalem, the radios are still turned up loud.