Text size

Israel leapt from the frying pan of international scorn into the fire of threatened escalation Monday, as Jerusalem municipality bulldozers rumbled into the Holy City's largely Palestinian eastern half to knock down nine Arab-owned homes, and a wanted Fatah Tanzim leader who had boasted of immunity to assassination met sudden death in a West Bank blast.

In the latest laceration of a relative lull in violence, a mystery explosion in the West Bank border town of Tul Karm killed Raed Karmi, a militia commander renowned for his self-celebrated skill in avoiding Israeli-fired missiles and bullets.

Israeli officials side-stepped claiming responsibility for the bombing in Tul Karm, a hotbed of Palestinian militancy located minutes from population centers in Israel proper. But they were straightforward about their desire to see Karmi dead and buried.

The apparent Israeli-ordered killing was the first such operation in more than a month. Asked whether the timing was ill-advised, in view of a lull in violence and U.S.-spurred efforts to forge a viable truce and pave the way to resumption of peace talks, Transport Minister Ephraim Sneh replied, "I am in favor of strictly adhering to a cease-fire, but a man like this ... is of the order of a ticking bomb, a man who initiated terrorist attacks even during periods of truce. If he continued to initiate terrorist attacks, he was a man with whom we were at war, and all these rules don't apply to him."

Karmi's comrades lost no time in declaring they now felt themselves also unbound by truce limitations. In a statement quoted by Army Radio, the Al-Aqsa Martyrs, a military wing of Fatah, announced that the killing had rendered null and void truce understandings announced by overall Fatah leader Yasser Arafat. "Israel started this," the radio quoted a statement as saying, "and we must react... The reaction will come fast - very fast."

Sneh, a Labor MK, was unapologetic on the issue of assassinations: "A war on terrorism means, first of all, striking at the heads of terror. No military solution is an absolute solution, but since we need to prevent the next terrorist attack and to deal with terrorism not with words but with deeds, in my view and in my experience the most efficient of the range of military means is striking at the heads of the terror frameworks, the commanders."

"This man was one of the most deadly and explicit of terror activists," Sneh concluded. "He who lives by the sword dies by the sword."

News of the killing emerged shortly after the Jerusalem municipality, headed by Mayor Ehud Olmert, of the Likud, dispatched more than a dozen bulldozers to level houses in the Palestinian neighborhood of Issawiyah, which had been built without a permit.

The demolitions of nine houses - the planned razing of eight more was stayed by court order - touched nerves not only because of the sensitive issue of construction in a city claimed by both Jews and Arabs as their capitals.

The measure was also closely watched because it came just four days after IDF forces demolished dozens of homes in Rafah refugee camp in the Gaza Strip, saying they were abandoned and used by gunmen to fire on its troops, or contained tunnels through which arms were being smuggled from Egypt.

The Gaza demolitions, in apparent retaliation for a deadly Hamas border raid on a military outpost in a nearby section of southern Israel, stirred a storm of negative publicity for Israel. On Friday, UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan condemned as collective punishment Israel's bulldozing of the Gaza homes. Several Labor cabinet ministers also voiced criticism of the Gaza demolitions.

The discord within the cabinet, and in particular the condemnations abroad, clearly took Israel's senior leadership leaders aback - so much so that, Foreign Minister Shimon Peres told the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, that he, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Defense Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer decided in a meeting overnight to end the demolition of Palestinian homes in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

"We have learned a lesson, and reached the conclusion that the damage caused by this system exceeds its benefits," Peres said.

Hardline Public Security Minister Uzi Landau, meanwhile, saw no reason to have delayed the East Jerusalem demolitions. "We must handle all cases of demolitions with kid gloves, to see if they are necessary. However, when the law is being flaunted, and when especially in Jerusalem we see systematic work by the Palestinian Authority [to encourage illegal construction], there cannot be any doubt that he who builds a house illegally may continue to hope that that house will continue to stand."

Landau denied that the demolitions - a rarity where building violations by Jews are concerned - constituted a form of discrimination. "These problems generally don't happen, because when they come to demolish a balcony or structure of someone Jewish, you don't have these demonstrations," he said.

For days, Israeli military brass and politicians had sparred over conflicting accounts of the number of houses actually demolished in Rafah. But as Ha'aretz commentator Ze'ev Schiff notes, citing the army's official figures, "The truth is that it does not matter very much, because the demolition of 22 houses alone was a form of collective punishment of civilians. That's what outraged so many Israelis and foreigners. That fact remains, even if there were 150 or 200 people, and not 800 people, as the Palestinians claim."

Schiff says that in demolishing the homes, Israel inadvertently acted to defeat its own, apparently attainable strategic targets. "Israel's strategic, public relations goal since last week has been in two areas: the Karine A weapons ship and the connection of several top PA officials to the affair, and the Palestinian-Iranian connection seemingly confirmed by Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat.

"But, as in many cases in the past, it wasn't the Palestinians, but Israel itself, which disrupted the political campaign," Schiff writes in Monday's print edition.

"Israel went into action at a most sensitive time, using collective punishment by destroying the homes of many civilians, Palestinian refugees. With its own hands, Israel turned the light away from two important strategic issues and onto a subject that forced it to become apologetic and full of contradictions in its explanations. It was an Israeli own-goal."