Shot children added to casualty list in a normal weekend of war

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Reginald Maudling coined that outrageous cliché about the "acceptable level of violence" in Northern Ireland. Neither Israelis nor Palestinians find violence acceptable, but their war is slipping into that dangerous phase, a sort of normalcy in which a dead child or two, a spray of mortars, a failed suicide bombing, becomes a day like any other.

A slight increase in killing and wounding ­ yesterday was a good example ­ becomes an "upsurge in violence" for the television channels, in which individual suffering is replaced by casualty lists.

Thus, what would once have claimed front pages ­ the deliberate Israeli killing of a 14-year-old boy for throwing stones ­ becomes part of just another death list to add to that wildest of all clichés beloved of journalists and President George Bush, the "cycle of violence".

Mohamed al-Arrar wasn't the only child casualty of the weekend. Two Palestinian babies ­ aged three and six months ­ were seriously wounded by Israeli troops; the younger was shot in the head when the car in which he was travelling came under Israeli fire near Khan Younis in the Gaza Strip while the older child was hit in the abdomen when Israeli soldiers fired at a vehicle trying to bypass a checkpoint. A two-year-old Israeli girl was also hit by gunfire ­ almost certainly Palestinian ­ during an attack on a bus in north Jerusalem.

As usual these days, there were no apologies, no expressions of regret. Israelis and Palestinians now routinely blame each other for their own atrocities while their leaders desperately seek to shore up their withering support. Complaining that Yasser Arafat must demonstrate his power to end Palestinian violence, the Israeli army is increasingly sapping his ability to do this; yesterday, it fired two missiles at a Palestinian police post in Gaza ­ retaliation, it claimed, for mortar shells fired at a Jewish settlement. The most recent opinion poll suggests that 70 per cent of Israelis believe that their Prime Minister, Ariel Sharon, cannot produce the "security" he promised before his election ­ they want not fewer shootings but "tougher" action against Palestinians; which would mean, of course, more deaths.

In this context, the news that Mr Sharon's Foreign Minister, Shimon Peres, expects to meet Mr Arafat soon to "discuss" a ceasefire seemed almost absurd.

But the Palestinians are now saying there will be no talks until the Israelis hand back Orient House in Jerusalem, which Mr Sharon says he will never do. And so it goes on.

A Palestinian man was shot dead by Israeli troops near Nablus yesterday while allegedly trying to avoid a military checkpoint ­ something that thousands of Palestinians (and not a few journalists) do every day; his death comes only 48 hours after Israeli soldiers in Gaza killed Abdulrahman Abu Bakr, a former member of Mr Arafat's security services who was "taking up position" with four other men in an empty house near the Jewish settlement of Katif.

And all the while, the suicide bombers try to get through. At the start of the weekend, the Israelis successfully prevented 24-year-old Azam Diab from blowing himself up in Haifa ­ both he and his driver, a 19-year- old from Jenin refugee camp, told Israeli Shin Bet agents that they planned to attack the City Hall disco, which would have been packed with Israeli teenagers attending a party.

Both men belong to Islamic Jihad ­ proving that last week's Israeli destruction of Jenin police headquarters did nothing to deter would-be suiciders. As for that casualty list, incomplete though it inevitably is, the toll since Friday lunchtime stood last night at three Palestinians dead (two by Israeli fire, the third a probable collaborator murdered by Palestinians), 13 wounded (12 Palestinians, including two babies, and an Israeli child), one Palestinian reported abducted, another Palestinian at al-Khadar wounded ­ Palestinians claimed this was an attempted assassination ­ and one failed suicide bombing.

And Mr Bush, the man who might be able to bring this tragedy to an end if he had the courage to intervene, is ­ as the Palestinians never cease to remind us ­ still on holiday.

* Israeli helicopters fired two missiles at a Palestinian security post in Khan Younis yesterday in the third military strike in the Gaza Strip in 24 hours. Israeli soldiers shot dead an unarmed Palestinian man who tried to evade a checkpoint in the West Bank.