The Israeli intelligence officers looked up from their maps when they heard the reverberations from the choppers last Wednesday night. From their base on a hill at the southern edge of Ramallah, they saw the lights in the city go out. The choppers were close now, flying without lights. The officers were excited, anticipating what was coming. Then one of them noticed a point of light. It was the tail of an air-to-ground missile launched.
This was neither a beginning nor an end. The rockets that glared over Ramallah and Gaza Wednesday night were simply punctuation points on the canvas of death being painted by Palestinians and Israelis. The two Palestinians who blew themselves up last week as suicide bombers believed they were inscribing their souls into a future of national freedom by taking the lives of two Israelis and wounding about 40 others. The Israeli pilots didn't turn the night into an inferno in the belief that it would be the last time they would fly. The pilots' mission was the first move in a multistage plan by Israel's new Prime Minister, Ariel Sharon, to teach Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat a lesson. But worrying questions began creeping into Israeli discussions again last week: Is Arafat really in control? And if he is, will Israeli strikes only serve to toughen his stance?
It was a suicide bomb at a gas station just inside Israel that set in motion Phase 1 of Sharon's plan. A group of young Israelis gathered there each morning to wait for the bus. A young Palestinian, a student at Bir Zeit University near Ramallah, approached the kids with his leather jacket zipped up, despite the heat of the morning. Beneath the jacket was a girdle of explosives. When he detonated, he took two Israeli youngsters with him. It was the third explosion--and two other bombs were defused--within Israel's borders in 24 hours. There had been so many car bombs in the three weeks since Sharon took office that parking inspectors began programming the registration numbers of all stolen cars into their handheld ticket-writing machines so they can quickly identify suspect vehicles.
Sharon convened his cabinet at 6:30 Wednesday evening with a joke that has serious implications for peace. The Prime Minister had just held a meeting with Foreign Minister Shimon Peres, who shared a Nobel Peace Prize with Arafat for the Oslo peace accords. Sharon, whose reputation is as hawkish as Peres' is dovish, told his cabinet that Peres had advocated a stronger response: "Peres is more aggressive than I am." Peres responded, "Yes, he had to restrain me this time." It was another sign that there is a deep anger among supporters of the peace process who feel Arafat betrayed them.