Has peace been blown apart?

The suicide bombings in Israel will bring about a new cycle of violence, says Patrick Cockburn
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The suicide bombs in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem have created a political crisis for Israel, the Palestinians and the peace accords that were meant to resolve the conflict between them. They have all but destroyed the government of Shimon Peres, which is now likely to lose the election in May. They have ended, for the moment, the hopes of Yasser Arafat of gradually creating a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza.

It has all happened so suddenly. Ten days ago Peres seemed to be heading for a landslide victory. Polls showed that the Oslo accords were backed by 59 per cent of Israelis. Binyamin Netanyahu, the leader of the right- wing Likud party, was still damaged by the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin last November. But four bombs have transformed relations between Israelis and Palestinians. As Israelis spoke yesterday of forming a national unity government there was little support left for the next stage of accommodation with Arafat.

It has been a strange bombing campaign, not least because nobody knows who is carrying it out. Although the suicide bombers come from some fraction of Izzedine al-Qasim, the military wing of Hamas, their statements are constantly contradicted by events. The bomb yesterday in Tel Aviv followed a detailed leaflet the day before that said there would be a three-month truce. The attacks appear to be carried out by a few fanatical cells in the area of Hebron and Jerusalem, possibly with support from some militant Hamas leaders in Jordan and Syria.

The declared reason for the bombings is vengeance for the assassination of Yahyah Ayyash, the Hamas master bomb-maker, on 5 January, by a booby- trapped phone planted by Israeli agents. Retaliation was expected but not on the present devastating scale. As the attacks continue, however, it seems that whoever is behind them simply wishes to end Israeli-Palestinian detente.

In this they are succeeding very well. By twice hitting No 18 buses in Jerusalem the bombers mocked claims of improved security. Even as troops and police poured into Jerusalem yesterday, the bombers attacked again in Tel Aviv.

"Everybody is now caught in a trap, both Peres and Arafat," said a Palestinian observer, who did not want to be named, in Jerusalem yesterday. "The Israeli government needs to do something spectacular to answer Hamas if it is to win the election. This has to be as dramatic as the suicide bombs themselves. The only thing they can really do is go into Gaza or one of the other autonomous Palestinian towns. This might go down well with the Israeli public, but would certainly lead to more suicide bombs."

Zeev Schiff, a commentator close to the Israeli establishment, wrote yesterday: "Israel demands that the Palestinian Authority take care of Hamas and other terror groups located in the autonomous area. If the Palestinian Authority fails to act, Israel will intervene and srike against the various targets." Specifically, Israel wants Arafat to outlaw the whole of Hamas - its political as well its military wing - and arrest its leaders and activists.

The problem for Arafat is that, if he does do this, he will look like what his radical enemies have always claimed he was: a Palestinian version of Chief Buthelezi in South Africa, an Israeli puppet ruling Gaza as his Bantustan. Hamas is supported by almost 20 per cent of the Palestinian population. Arafat's tactic has always been to try to co-opt the political wing of Hamas - he almost got them to take part in elections - and to isolate and pressurise Izzedine al-Qasim. He may also feel he will gain little if he simply drives them underground.

But if Arafat fails to deal with Hamas, he will face armed Israeli intervention, and that would be deeply humiliating. It would compromise the fledgling independence of the autonomous areas. It would set a precedent for a Likud government, making it easier for Netanyahu to send in the tanks if, as seems increasingly likely, he comes to power. Mr Arafat would also have to decide if he would tell the 20,000 armed men under his command, designated as police but often combat soldiers, to open fire on any Israeli intervention force.

Probably, Mr Arafat will chose to strike hard at Hamas. Ordinary Palestinians are probably more receptive to the idea than before. "After Sunday's bomb, for the first time I heard most Palestinians say it was counter-productive," said a Palestinian. "They thought the first bomb was revenge for Ayyash but this is too much. They also know the closure of the West Bank means semi-starvation for the three months until the Israeli election."

In Gaza, Arafat succeeded surprisingly well in isolating Hamas. But the current wave of attacks come from the West Bank. In Hebron district, Hamas is strong and Israeli troops have not yet withdrawn. They were to make a partial pull-back in March, but this is now unlikely to take place. It was from al-Fawwar refugee camp, immediately outside Hebron, that the first two suicide bombers came. It lies in the so-called area "B" where Israel is in charge of overall security. Arafat says he is not responsible.

Ordinary Israelis will not see it that way. In their eyes, the Oslo accords gave the Palestinians a measure of independence in return for peace. Instead they dare not let their children get on a bus. They will blame Arafat. The right will do so because it always opposed Oslo and believes Arafat and Hamas work hand in glove. Israelis as a whole will want some spectacular counter-attack, to show that Israel is not militarily impotent in the face of the suicide bombers.

There is a further reason why Israel may want to act militarily. The Oslo accords reflected the balance of power between Israel and the Palestinians in the early 1990s. Israel was clearly predominant. But in the invasion of Lebanon in 1982-84, during the Palestinian intifada three years later, and in the Gulf war, Israel had been unable to turn its military power into political dividends.

The suicide bomb is a weapon of savage power that has disturbed the previous balance between Israel and the Palestinians. One Palestinian, asked to explain why Yahyah Ayyash was so popular, said: "You don't understand how powerless and vulnerable Palestinians feel. They liked Ayyash because they knew he frightened Israelis." But now, the terrified Israelis will strike back, returning the two peoples to a cycle of ever-escalating, tit-for-tat revenge. In Ireland this pattern of killing used to be called "the politics of the last atrocity". This is the politics that now threatens to bury the rational calculations of the would-be peace makers in the Middle East.