LOS ANGELES: The appalling spasm of violence between Israel and the Palestinians over the past few days is almost certainly the precursor of worse — in all likelihood far worse — to come.

What is all the more tragic and depressing than the grim future ahead is that this mayhem was deliberately provoked by Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.

From mid-December to early January, following a speech by Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat that called for an end to all attacks on Israeli civilians and a return to the negotiating table, Palestinians enforced a unilateral cease-fire at the expense of unity. Opposition leaders were jailed and several Palestinians were killed in protests against the crackdown.

Sharon’s government reciprocated by increasing its attacks and by engaging in a series of provocations and humiliations against the Palestinians. During this period, more than 30 Palestinians were killed, at least 10 of them children. Little recognition was given to the steps the Palestinian Authority had unilaterally taken to reduce violence, let alone its efforts to resume negotiations.

Sharon responded to this window of opportunity by placing Arafat under virtual house arrest in Ramallah and refusing to allow him to attend Christmas Mass in Bethlehem. The message was clear: All Palestinians, Arafat included, and all Palestinian towns, Bethlehem included, will remain objects of Israeli power.

The window of opportunity that opened during this period was finally slammed shut on Jan. 14 by Israel’s assassination of Raed Karmi, leader of a West Bank militia.

That murder, which set in motion the most recent round of violence, was a deliberate attempt to escalate the conflict.

Sharon knows that his political future depends on the continuation and intensification of violence, that he remains the panic candidate for Israelis overwhelmed by anxiety and anger. Worse, his right-wing government seems to genuinely feel that a military victory against the Palestinians is not only possible but imminent.

In reality, Sharon’s policies have led to less, not more, security for Israelis and more intense, not reduced, Palestinian resistance.

As this war escalates, it becomes ever more brutal. The attack on an Israeli bar mitzvah in Hadera was particularly horrifying and appears to have been a direct response to the murder of Karmi. Meanwhile, Israel demolished scores of homes — leaving hundreds of Palestinians homeless — and bombed Palestinian radio and television facilities. Israel’s takeover of the Palestinian town of Tulkarem and its assassination of four Hamas members Tuesday, including a leading figure in the movement, makes a massive retaliation inevitable.

Apologists for Israel claim that th there is “no moral equivalency” between Israeli and Palestinian violence in this conflict, in spite of the fact that more than 270 Israelis and almost 1,000 Palestinians have been killed over the past 16 months. They say Palestinians target Israeli civilians, while the Palestinian civilian deaths were somehow accidentally or unintentionally caused by Israeli troops. Yet every human-rights group that has cared to investigate has found that Israeli forces have routinely used excessive and arbitrary force.

The truth is that both sides are attacking each other’s civilians with all means at their disposal. Israel has even turned F-16 jets, Apache helicopters and tanks against Palestinian civilian targets. Palestinian radicals turn themselves into human bombs.

Israelis are stopping at nothing to enforce their occupation, while Palestinians have been unwilling to set limits as to what is permissible in the pursuit of freedom. Anyone searching for morality in this equation is kidding themselves.

(The writer is communications director of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee.) —Dawn/LAT-WP News Service (c) Los Angeles Times

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