Cycle of Violence
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TERENCE SMITH: For more on today’s bombing and the possible political impact, we’re joined by Dan Ephron, a Newsweek correspondent based in Jerusalem.
Dan Ephron, welcome. This bombing today was huge, and the casualties heavy. Does it represent a new tactic on the part of those who did it?
DAN EPHRON: Well, I think the Islamic Jihad, which is behind this bombing, is always trying to find ways to get into Israel, to detonate these bombs, and to kill as many Israelis as they can. In that respect, it’s not new. I think there might be something new in the modus operandi.
We haven’t seen car bombings in the past; we’ve seen Palestinians strap these explosives to their bodies. And it might be that this is part of what Israeli authorities, Israeli intelligence types have talked about this aim of Palestinians to pull off the mega bombing, the kind of attack that would kill not a dozen or two dozen, but dozens, scores, maybe hundreds.
TERENCE SMITH: The Palestinian Authority has said that it did not know of this in advance. Is that denial credible?
DAN EPHRON: Well, it might be. These groups operate in the shadows, and they operate in very tiny cells. The Islamic Jihad is a very small group, and there might have been two or three or just four people who knew about this attack in advance. I think the Israelis would respond in that it’s not just knowing about these attacks that Arafat has to do and to stop them before they happen, but to actually constantly crack down on the Islamic Jihad, on Hamas, on members of his own Fatah faction to make sure they can’t organize and get into Israel and pull off these kinds of attacks.
TERENCE SMITH: What, in fact, was the Israeli response today?
DAN EPHRON: Well, I think the Israeli response was similar to what it has been for a good many months, and that is to put the blame on Arafat and to say that this proves from an Israeli perspective that Arafat isn’t doing enough or that he isn’t doing anything. Arafat met with George Tenet just yesterday, and I know that Tenet pressed him to crack down, to rein in these groups before they get a chance to pull off these bombings. He’s also talking about restructuring the Palestinian security agencies. Israel says all this is for naught, it is worthless unless Arafat can get out and stop these bombings.
TERENCE SMITH: That’s George Tenet, the Director of the Central Intelligence Agency. And what impact, if any, has this incident, this bombing, had on what he was trying to accomplish there?
DAN EPHRON: Well, I think generally the Americans are trying to do two things. They’re trying to press Arafat to crack down, and they’re trying to get Sharon to ease up on the conditions for a resumption of peace talks or some kind of bona fide peace process. Attacks like this are counterproductive on both sides. They strengthen the extremists on the Palestinian side, they show the Israelis that Arafat is not doing enough, and they make Sharon less willing, less likely to go into peace talks with the Palestinians.
TERENCE SMITH: Dan, what was the reaction among the Israeli public today, after all, this is the sixth suicide bombing attack since the end of the large-scale Israeli military offensive in the West Bank. What was the reaction today?
DAN EPHRON: It is the sixth attack, but I think the others have been… most of the others have been small, and I think there was a feeling since the offensive among Israelis that maybe the Palestinians couldn’t pull off the big one, and that maybe this offensive had been successful in thwarting future Palestinian attacks. I think some of that was shattered.
There was a sobering effect to this bombing. I saw a headline in one of the Israeli newspapers this morning that said that the Israeli army had managed to eliminate or nearly eliminate the infrastructure of Hamas and the Islamic Jihad, these groups that are pulling off these attacks, and this bombing came up just a couple of hours after the newspapers hit the stands. So I think Israelis are questioning the effectiveness of that operation, in retrospect, and they’re wondering what it is their government can do to stop the bombings.
TERENCE SMITH: Is there a public demand either for a renewal of that offensive or for separation of the two peoples? What’s been the reaction?
DAN EPHRON: You know, in some respect, that offensive never really ended. It lasted three weeks. Israel pulled back from those Palestinian cities, but really since the end of April, Israeli troops have been making incursions into Palestinian cities and towns almost on a daily basis. We saw Israeli troops go into Jenin after the bombing a few hours ago, but Israeli soldiers have been in Nablus, for instance, for the last four days running, and they’ve imposed curfews on Nablus and other places.
There certainly is a demand by the Israeli public whenever something like this happens for the Israeli army to crack down, for the Israeli government to be tougher, to take tougher measures. But I think in the long run, there’s also a recognition that those things have to be accompanied by some kind of political process; that this war can’t be won solely in military terms.
TERENCE SMITH: Any speculation or sense of the significance of the timing of this attack? It comes, after all, on the 35th anniversary of the start of the six-day war. And it also comes, for that matter, on the eve of some very high-level diplomatic activity in Washington. Have you heard any thoughts on that subject?
DAN EPHRON: You know, it seems that whenever there are diplomats here, American diplomats especially, whenever there’s diplomacy going on, that seems like a good time from the perspective of these groups like Islamic Jihad, like Hamas, to step up their efforts to try to stage an attack. And the reason is simple: They want to make sure that these efforts are not fruitful, and so this is a good time for them. They cited the 35th anniversary of the war in 1967 in which Israel occupied the West Bank and Gaza, so that’s also an occasion.
TERENCE SMITH: Of course, in recent weeks, Prime Minister Sharon has been calling for the effective replacement of Yasser Arafat as the head of the Palestinian Authority as a negotiating partner. Is this likely to have any impact on that one way or the other?
DAN EPHRON: Well, after something like this happens, you hear more voices, more Israelis– not just people on the far right, but maybe in the center– calling for his exile, for his ouster. I think there’s still American pressure on Israel not to make a move like that. And I think there’s also fundamental questions about whether or not that would help.
Would Arafat still be in control even if he’s out of the West Bank, would there be a form of chaos that would ensue in the West Bank that might be harder for Israel to deal with? All these questions loom, I think, as Israelis come around and try to figure out what to do about these bombings.
TERENCE SMITH: Finally, was there any reaction from the Palestinian people or from Palestinians you may have spoken to today after they heard the news of this?
DAN EPHRON: Well, I think that in some respect, Palestinians see this as a sign — or some Palestinians do, many Palestinians do — as a sign that the Israeli offensive didn’t work, that the Israeli damage and casualties they imposed in places like Jenin didn’t have an effect, that Palestinian groups like Islamic jihad can rise up despite all this, can shake it off and still carry off attacks. And I think that for many Palestinians, that’s a source of pride, maybe momentary pride. But again, I think Israelis in a broad sense and Palestinians, as well, recognize that these things generate more violence, and the way out is through some kind of negotiation.
TERENCE SMITH: All right. Dan Ephron of Newsweek, thanks very much.
DAN EPHRON: Thank you.