There was a sad inevitability about Tuesday night's suicide bombing in Tel Aviv, just as there is about the next one, and the one after that. There was also a certain predictability about the responses. The Israeli government was quick to establish and to emphasise that the bomber came from Gaza and not from the West Bank. Thus Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has a persuasive reply to those who predicted that his "iron fist" policy in the West Bank would only recruit more martyrs to the ranks of extremist Palestinian organisations.
For the hardliners in Israel, which, it must be acknowledged, means at least three-quarters of the population, this does not mean that the operation to root out terrorism was misguided, only that it did not go far enough – and the next step must be to invade the Gaza Strip to kill or capture any armed Palestinians found there.
It is wrongheaded and one-sided to deny that there is some justice in the Israeli case. While the gesture by Yasser Arafat, the Palestinian Authority president, in ordering his security forces to prevent future attacks was welcome, in that it was better than publicly instructing them to assist young zealots with explosive strapped around their middles, everyone knows his writ is too feeble to run very far. The Palestinian leader has failed to offer his people either the hope that might dissuade them, or the force that might prevent them, from turning to war. Therefore, the Israeli government has the moral and practical authority to try to stop the suicide bombers at source and to do Mr Arafat's policing for him.
Unfortunately, it ought to be clear to any thinking observer that this action, and the way the Israeli Defence Force has gone about it, will only make the underlying situation worse. Tuesday's suicide bomber may have come from Gaza, but the next one, or the one after that, will be someone whose relatives saw what happened in Jenin. Too bad, say most Israelis, and their frustration is understandable. They are willing to concede a Palestinian state, but only if that will stop the terrorist violence. No such guarantee can credibly be given, so they feel they have no choice but to try to secure themselves in the short term as best they can.
There are, however, things the Israeli government could do to make an eventual peace more rather than less likely, and sooner rather than later. Two above all. One is to "internationalise" the conflict. This it has already begun to do in granting a role to British and American wardens in the deal which released Mr Arafat from house arrest. At his meeting with President Bush this week, Mr Sharon left the door slightly ajar to the idea of an international conference this summer which would, among other things, help to tie in the Arab League nations as guarantors of any eventual settlement.
The other is to do something about the settlements. Of all the injustices suffered by the Palestinians, the seizure of land and the building of new Israeli towns in occupied territory is the most grievous. Much of the occupied land will have to be returned to the Palestinians if there is to be any hope of healing the national trauma of which suicide bombing is the most extreme manifestation.
In this act of the tragedy, the protagonists are still moving further apart, and the pieces of the puzzle that must come together do not yet fit. All that compassionate observers can do is to repeat continually that the actors in this tragedy – some more than others – can make choices which might ultimately lead to different outcomes, and that neither Mr Arafat nor Mr Sharon are yet making the most hopeful choices.Reuse content