Israel locked into a deadly cycle of retaliation

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The Independent Online

First came the changes in air pressure, then the drum role of tank fire. I looked out the window, across the Kidron valley to the Dome of the Rock which shimmered in gold above the Old City. It was long past dark but the Israeli-Palestinian war has now become a familiar sound in Jerusalem.

The bombardments of Beit Jalla possess a ritual all their own – Palestinian gunmen fire first at the Jewish settlement of Gilo, then Israeli tank crews shoot back – but early yesterday morning was by far the heaviest battle in almost a year.

Of course, one must forget that Gilo is the Hebrew for Jalla, that the settlement is built illegally on the land of the Palestinian people of Beit Jalla – because Israelis like to present this in simple terms: the Palestinian "terrorists" are shooting at Israelis in the suburbs of Jerusalem.

Only hours earlier the Israelis had tried to murder Muhind Dirya, a member of the Palestinian "Force 17" in Ramallah. Had the Dirya murder attempt prompted the resumption of Palestinian attacks on Gilo? Or was the reported Palestinian mortar-fire on a Gaza settlement supposed to be the retaliation? And if so, what was the Israeli helicopter attack on a Palestinian police station in the Gaza town of Rafa meant to be? Thus do civil wars such as this achieve their own momentum. For violent events in Israel and the occupied territories are now occurring at such speed that it is almost impossible to grasp who is retaliating for what; which is the delight of all politicians – who rely upon the short memory of their supporters – and the bane of every reporter.

No sooner had I arrived in Ramallah yesterday to look at the cinders of Mr Dirya's car – the Israelis had a clear shot from a massive military encampment and an illegal settlement on a neighbouring hilltop – than a Palestinian struck back. A member of Hamas? Or of Islamic Jihad? With or without an accomplice?

But in the first attack of its kind in Israel since the start of the intifada, a young man, driving a black car, sped past one of Tel Aviv's main military bases and sprayed a group of Israeli soldiers who were leaving for lunch. He, like the Israelis, was trying to murder his enemies. He wounded 10 men before an Israeli shot the gunman in the head and he crashed into a lamp-post. The first shooting assassination attempt by Palestinians inside Israel in 12 months was another new statistic to add to the war.

On the way back from Ramallah, the Israelis blocked the road for hours. For "security" reasons, of course. But more likely as retaliation, as a means of further humiliating the Palestinians who beg, plead and try to curse their way through their country. At one point, I followed a trail of trucks down a side road, into fields of mud and broken rock and up on to the Jerusalem road on the other side of the Israeli checkpoint.

Having now been in occupation here for 34 years, the Israelis know the location of the side road by heart. So here's the question: if they were so concerned about "security", why didn't they block the side road? Because "security" wasn't really the point of the roadblock? Because the queue of sweating, shouting civilians in their oven-like cars was a bit of mass punishment that had served its purpose?