Israel Stands Firm on IDF Campaign

In the Byzantine politics of the Middle East, even a suicide bombing is subject to differing interpretations.

After a suicide bomber detonated his explosives aboard a bus near Haifa on Wednesday, killing eight Israelis and wounding 14, Palestinian officials said the attack proved that Israel’s military operation in the West Bank was ineffective in halting terror. The Bush administration said the attack reinforced the need for Israel to withdraw its forces. Yet, Israeli officials countered that the attack proved the necessity of continuing the operation until the entire network of Palestinian terror is eradicated.

It was at least the fourth Palestinian suicide attack to take place since Israel launched Operation Protective Wall on March 29 in an attempt to round up terrorists and collect illegal arms in Palestinian-controlled cities.

Hours after the bombing, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon vowed to press ahead with Israel’s military operation — a promise he made several times this week despite growing U.S. pressure to withdraw. For days, President Bush and other U.S. officials have been calling for an end to the operation.

Sharon gave a mixed response to the U.S. pressure early Tuesday morning, when he had the Israel Defense Force (IDF) withdraw from two West Bank cities, Tulkarm and Kalkilya, but at the same time, ordered his troops into the town of Dura, near Hebron. Israeli and American observers had speculated that Sharon would order a full-scale withdrawal before U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell arrived in Israel by the end of the week.

But a deadly suicide bombing Tuesday in Jenin — the West Bank city that has witnessed the fiercest fighting since Operation Protective Wall began — may only harden Sharon’s resolve to press on. Speaking after he received word that 13 Israeli reservists had been killed in a Palestinian ambush in Jenin’s crowded refugee camp (the total dead is now 15), Sharon sounded a defiant tone. "This battle is a battle for survival of the Jewish people, for survival of the state of Israel."

Clashes continued in Jenin on Tuesday evening, when another Israeli soldier was killed and 12 were wounded while searching a building. On Wednesday, Sharon spoke at an army command post overlooking the Jenin refugee camp and vowed to stay in the West Bank until the anti-terror campaign is finished. If Israel withdraws now, "we will have to return," he said. "Once we finish, we are not going to stay here. But first, we have to accomplish our mission."

On Wednesday, armed Palestinians in Jenin began surrendering to Israeli forces. Reports said some 200 Palestinians, including civilians, had given themselves up.

More than 100 Palestinians are believed to have been killed during the Israeli operation in the Jenin camp. Among those reported killed was Mahmoud Tawalbeh, 23, a leader of Islamic Jihad who masterminded a number of suicide bombings in Israel.

Since the start of Operation Protective Wall, 22 Israeli soldiers have been killed in Jenin. The refugee camp is a stronghold for Islamic terrorists, and dozens of Hamas and Islamic Jihad suicide bombers have been dispatched from there.

On Wednesday, the United States, United Nations, Russia and European Union issued a joint statement calling on Israel to pull out immediately from Palestinian cities. The statement also called on both sides to implement a cease-fire, and urged Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat to do everything possible to prevent terrorist attacks against Israeli civilians.

U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan issued the statement following a meeting in Madrid on Wednesday with Powell, Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov, E.U. Foreign Policy Chief Javier Solana and Josep Pique, the foreign minister of Spain, who currently holds the rotating E.U. presidency.

Meanwhile, attempts were continuing on the diplomatic front. Powell said he would meet with Arafat later this week as part of efforts to reach a cease-fire. Powell made the announcement Tuesday in Cairo, the second stop in his Middle East peacemaking mission. He was in Morocco a day earlier. Speaking Wednesday, Powell denied speculation that the suicide bombing near Haifa had derailed his peace effort even before arriving in Israel.

Also Wednesday, White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said Bush would "remain persistent" in efforts to get Israel to withdraw from the West Bank. Fleischer also told reporters that Bush has no plans to withhold U.S. aid to Israel if Sharon refuses to withdraw troops. When a reporter spoke of Sharon’s refusal to heed Bush’s repeated demands for a withdrawal, Fleischer said, "Welcome to the Middle East." Fleischer also reiterated that the United States sees Palestinian suicide bombers as terrorists, not freedom fighters.

A similar view was voiced Wednesday by the European Union, which called on Arafat to stop describing suicide bombers as martyrs and clearly condemn them as terrorists. However, E.U. lawmakers also voted for new measures to pressure Israel to stop its military operation.

Meeting in Brussels on Wednesday, the European Parliament approved a nonbinding resolution calling on E.U. governments to impose an arms embargo on Israel and suspend the E.U. association agreement with Israel, which governs trade and political ties between Israel and the European bloc.

Israelis, however, are giving Sharon widespread backing for the offensive. A recent Jerusalem Post poll found that 72 percent of Israelis support the wide-scale military operation, and 36 percent favor the expulsion of Arafat.

Fifteen percent of respondents said they believe the reoccupation of Palestinian cities should be permanent.