As violence continues, hawks press Sharon for action

JERUSALEM — Considering that air, water and fire are essential elements not just of life but of war, Israelis this week could hardly feel more besieged.

In the morning on Monday, takeoffs and traffic at Ben-Gurion Airport were severely disrupted following a bomb scare. In the evening, greater Tel Aviv's water supply was announced undrinkable due to a "technical" contamination that raised fears about the vulnerability of the country's water system.

Also on Monday, Israelis moved into a refugee camp in eastern Jerusalem, tearing down 14 homes that they said were built without permits.

On Tuesday, Israeli troops moved into Gaza, demolishing 26 Palestinian homes and 12 shops. Later that day, Palestinians fired a mortar shell at a nearby Israeli collective farm.

And on Wednesday, Israeli soldiers killed a Palestinian woman after the taxi she was in ran a West Bank military roadblock. In addition, detectives disarmed a Palestinian carrying a bomb near the northern Israeli city of Afula.

Throughout it all, the intifada continued to take its toll of casualties, with deaths topping 600 during the last 10 months. The toll includes at least 478 Palestinians, 124 Israelis and 13 Israeli Arabs, according to a Reuters report.

Against this grim backdrop — and increasingly resigned to the idea that a major Israeli attack of some sort has become all but inevitable — few bothered even to take note of yet another Palestinian promise to "effectively" combat terrorism.

And yet that is just what Foreign Minister Shimon Peres reported, and hailed, in a Cabinet meeting Sunday, quickly eliciting hostile responses from right-wing ministers and exposing the basic ideological differences between Peres and his partner-of-convenience, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.

According to Peres, Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat on Saturday night convened a high-powered forum where — weeks after he agreed to an American plan for a cease-fire — he ordered his assorted security organizations to start arresting perpetrators of terror attacks and their accomplices.

Peres' conclusion from the report, and from the level of violence that has diminished since Arafat signed the cease-fire agreement brokered last month by CIA Director George Tenet, is that the Palestinian Authority will make a sincere effort to reduce violence.

Based on this assessment, Peres concluded that Israel should begin to implement the recommendations of the Mitchell Commission — officially halting all settlement-building activity in the West Bank and Gaza Strip — as a prelude to resuming peace talks.

But Sharon reportedly rejected Peres' approach, insisting nothing short of a comprehensive cessation of Palestinian violence will constitute compliance with the Tenet plan. Under the plan, a week of quiet will be followed by a period of confidence-building measures, and then peace negotiations.

The Bush administration, for its part, is trying cautiously to uphold and enhance the nominal cease-fire, while desperately trying to avoid drowning in the Mideast quagmire that sucked in the Clinton administration.

Bush is sending a deputy assistant secretary of state, David Satterfield, in an open-ended effort to narrow the gaps between Jerusalem and Gaza with an eye to implementing the Mitchell Report, the Jerusalem Post said Tuesday.

The dispatch of such a relatively low-ranking official shows that the Bush administration has no illusions about the prospects for stabilizing the situation, let alone generating a breakthrough.

In the field, meanwhile, violence continued to rage.

Tuesday's demolitions at a Gaza Strip refugee camp triggered some of the worst fighting since the cease-fire was declared. Five Palestinians and three Israeli soldiers were wounded. The army charged that the structures had been used by Palestinian gunmen to attack Israeli troops along the border with Egypt.

On Sunday night, outside an Israeli army camp near Hebron in the West Bank, Capt. Shai Shalom Cohen was killed when a roadside bomb was detonated outside the jeep he was driving.

In between, grenade attacks were launched repeatedly at Israeli soldiers in the southern Gaza Strip.

In all, the Israeli army says the level of violence has declined to about a dozen incidents a day — hardly a full cease-fire, yet less than half the number of daily incidents before the Tenet plan was signed.