A paradox — Israel pursues war and peace at same time

JERUSALEM — As the Israeli army mounted a major operation in the Gaza Strip this week, questions were being asked about the ability of Israel's new, right-wing government to advance the peace process with the Palestinians.

Israeli officials claim the Gaza operation actually was intended to serve a new, serious drive for a cease-fire being discussed by Israeli and Palestinian officials. Once a cease-fire is achieved, they say, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is determined to move quickly to strike a longer-term deal with the Palestinians.

But the chances of achieving a cease-fire any time soon may be reduced following after a suicide bus bombing Wednesday in Haifa.

At least 15 people were killed and dozens wounded in the attack.

"Once again, the bestial hand of Palestinian terrorism has struck at the heart of Israel," a Foreign Ministry spokesman said.

Hamas issued a statement Wednesday in the Gaza Strip praising the bombing, but stopped short of claiming responsibility.

Israeli forces backed by tanks moved into Gaza's al-Bureij refugee camp on Monday after rockets were fired at the town of Sderot on the Israeli side of the border. The target was Hamas, which Israel holds responsible for the rocket attacks.

Israel argues that it can't allow Hamas to hold the people of Sderot hostage — and that, for any cease-fire to hold, the Palestinian Authority must keep Hamas and other radical organizations under control.

But Israeli faces a dilemma: Since the intifada began 29 months ago, Israel's battle against terror has severely weakened the Palestinian Authority, with which it might one day be able to strike a peace deal.

At the same time, the fighting has left Hamas, which is not interested in any compromise with Israel, virtually intact — to the extent that Hamas now is a real threat to the hegemony of the Palestinian Authority.

Israel's recent actions against Hamas, therefore, have a double goal: to protect Sderot by sending a deterrent message and to weaken Hamas's organizational structure and military capabilities.

Most of the Israel Defense Force operations in Gaza over the past month have been directed at Hamas terrorists. This week's action for the first time targeted a Hamas "political" leader, Mohammed Taha, one of the organization's co-founders, who was apprehended in the al-Bureij camp and taken into custody.

The message was clear: Israel now sees itself free to attack Hamas political leaders, including perhaps the organization's spiritual leader and co-founder, Sheik Ahmad Yassin.

Israel has been urging the Palestinian Authority to confront Hamas and force it to play by the Palestinian Authority's rules.

Israeli officials often cite the example of the chaotic early days of Israeli statehood when, to assert the authority of the central government, Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion ordered the sinking of the Altalena, a Jewish ship that was bringing arms to underground Jewish militias.

In recent weeks, the Palestinian Authority instituted patrols along Gaza's northern border, intercepting Hamas rocket crews and stopping them from firing. But beyond that, Israeli officials say, there is no sign that the Palestinian Authority is willing to take on Hamas.

By hitting the organization's political and military wings, Israel hopes to weaken Hamas enough to induce the Palestinian Authority to assert its authority at some point.

Yet there is something of a vicious circle in all this: The Israeli strikes have not been as surgical as the IDF would have liked, and a few hours after Monday's IDF incursion killed eight people, including two civilians, Hamas again fired rockets at Sderot. Given the scope of the Israeli attack, this time the Palestinian Authority was unwilling to stop Hamas.

Despite Israel's ongoing policy of proactive defense against Hamas and other terrorist groups, Israeli and Palestinian officials are working intensively on a phased cease-fire agreement that would lead eventually to a full Israeli pullout from Palestinian areas and to free Palestinian elections.

The idea is that the Palestinians first take effective security control in Gaza, which would mean keeping Hamas in check.

Sharon aides dismiss assessments in the Israeli press that the right-wing government will not be able to move on the Palestinian track. Immediately after his re-election, the aides note, Sharon held meetings with top Palestinian leaders — including the speaker of the Parliament, Ahmed Karia, and Finance Minister Salam Fayed — and say both sides are convinced they can work together.