Hamas Storms Southern Israel Outpost, Taking Aim at Fresh Attempts to Refloat Peace Hopes

Israeli officials Wednesday cited a deadly Hamas raid on a southern Israel outpost as proof that a recent lull in violence was a mirage, as budding hopes for a diplomatic breakthrough were reset - like the cease-fire clock - to zero.

Israeli officials Wednesday cited a deadly Hamas raid on a southern Israel outpost as proof that a recent lull in violence was a mirage, as budding hopes for a diplomatic breakthrough were reset - like the cease-fire clock - to zero.

The pre-dawn operation, in which two heavily armed Palestinians cut apart a security fence and stormed an IDF observation post just inside the border with the southern Gaza Strip, shattered what Defense Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer called the quietest week since the beginning of the uprising in late September, 2000.

Hours before the attack, Ben-Eliezer, citing Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's stipulation that seven days of absolute quiet precede any resumption of formal truce negotiations, had said that Israel and the Palestinian Authority were "closer than ever" to entering into talks over U.S.-brokered cease-fire initiatives.

The Bush administration was buoyed this week by the calm that attended the whirlwind visit of Mideast troubleshooter Anthony Zinni, who on his departure Sunday voiced guarded but evident optimism that the sides could advance toward implementation of a range of American-mediated confidence-building measures the sides have often endorsed but honored almost entirely in the breach.

The optimism was little tempered even by the daunting cargo of a ship carrying some 50 tons of weaponry. Israel intercepted the ship late last week, while Zinni was still shuttling between Jerusalem and Ramallah. Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, lambasting Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat as a liar and a "bitter enemy", said the arms were bought by and had been intended for Arafat's Authority, and that, had they been delivered, could strike at nearly any major Israeli population center from areas of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip under Arafat's aegis.

Israel called the arms-smuggling attempt a dangerous escalation of the conflict. But the ship story made few waves in a world inured to Israeli-Palestinian counter-punching. It was the lull, and not the load of armaments, that was fueling movement, and the thrust was toward truce efforts. Along with the cautious Ben-Eliezer endorsement of an entry into truce talks, Foreign Minister Shimon Peres said during a visit to India that he stood firm in efforts to revive Middle East peace talks despite a the flap over the arms ship.

"There is no solution but a political one, and no alternative but a peaceful one," Peres told a news conference in the southern Indian city of Bangalore. Peres's declaration came as South Africa's Foreign Ministry announced unofficial talks between an Israeli team headed Knesset Speaker Avraham Burg and peace process archited Yossi Beilin, and senior PA officials headed by chief negotiator Saeb Erekat.

Then, as reports of the attack filtered in, the prevailing diplomatic wind abruptly changed.

Even before Sharon's security cabinet met to discuss Israel's response to the border deaths, aides to the prime minister said the seven-day clock had been set back to zero - perhaps zero and then some.

Whatever military steps Israel might order in retaliation for the raid, the attack will spark "grave consequences for the diplomatic process."

"If there had been talk of seven days of quiet, the seven days of quiet are null and void," aides were quoted as saying. "As for everyone that perhaps had deluded themselves that these were days of quiet, Arafat has come forward to once again prove that there are no days of quiet."

Cabinet minister Benny Elon of the far-right National Union said the seven-day precondition had prompted Israeli leftists and rightists to engage in a "daft" debate over what truly consituted violations of the poorly-observed cease-fire. "People say that if there are a certain number of deaths, then this is a 'strategic' terror attack, which requires a certain reprisal. If there's only one dead, then no. If it's a soldier, then it's one thing. If it's (in the territories) then it's something else."

The Palestinian Authority, meanwhile, condemned the attack, declaring that Sharon was taking advantage of the incident to negate PA efforts to ratchet down the level of violence in recent weeks.

Even before the arms ship affair, Ha'aretz commentator Gideon Samet argues, Sharon had no intention of recognizing and responsing to the decline in violence.

"The government's tune, from top to bottom, hasn't changed for an instant, Samet writes in Wednesday's paper. "Sometimes it seems that the dramatic drop in violence is ruining the plans of the government's hawks, meaning the absolute majority of the ministers. It creates an embarrassing dissonance between the argument that the PA and its lying leader are making a mockery of us, and the daily facts on the ground. The IDF says that in the three weeks before Arafat's December 16 speech, there were 44 Israeli casualties, and in the three weeks since Arafat's speech, until January 6, there was only one Israeli casualty."

Samet maintains that "Since Sharon began dictating Israel's rhetoric, the country has been saying there won't be any talks with Arafat unless he stops the violence. It started with the condition of three weeks of quiet. American pressure reduced Sharon's demand to one week. But even after the PA managed to reduce the number of incidents so dramatically, nothing has changed.

"Unlike the three monkeys that didn't see, hear or speak, the Sharon government hears and sees only what it wants, and speaks only about that. During this period, Israel continued its intensive military activity in the territories. The argument, which cannot be refuted, is that those actions prevented attacks.

Samet asks, "But who can deal with the circular logic of the security establishment that claims it's not Arafat, but the security forces, who are responsible for the improvement? If that's the argument, the only conclusion is that military actions won't ever stop, because if they do, Jews will once again be killed."