Taking a page from the “preemptive warfare” book of the Bush administration, the Israeli government of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon brazenly sent warplanes to bomb what it called a “Palestinian militant training camp” deep inside Syrian territory on Oct. 5. It was the first major Israeli attack on Syrian territory in 30 years. The Syrian press described the site of the bombing, Ein Saheb, as a Palestinian refugee camp.

As the justification for its actions, the Israeli government cited the suicide bombing of a restaurant in the Israeli port city of Haifa the day before. It couched its rationale for the strike in Bush’s language of the “war on terrorism.”

President Bush immediately leapt to the defense of Sharon’s actions, saying that he refused to criticize the bombing raid and that Israel “must not feel constrained” in doing what it deems necessary “to protect the homeland.”

Hours later, an emboldened Sharon said Israel would “hit its enemies any place and in any way,” threatening still more attacks on Syria and, by implication, other nations like Lebanon and Iran.

World leaders reacted with alarm. United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan deplored the air raid, noting that “this further escalation of an already tense and difficult situation has the potential to broaden the scope of current conflicts in the Middle East, further threatening regional peace and stability.”

The Arab League, meeting in an emergency session in Cairo, said the situation could lead to “uncontrollable consequences, which could drag the whole region into a violent whirlpool.” Several countries, including France, Germany, and the U.K., denounced the action as a violation of international law and of Syria’s sovereignty.

The Israeli raid took place only a day after the deadly suicide bombing in Haifa, in which 20 persons died and at least 55 were injured. The seaside restaurant, Maxim Coffee-Restaurant, was jointly owned by Jews and Arabs and its clientele was similarly mixed. In many ways it was a showcase of Jewish-Arab cooperation. It was therefore a peculiar target of a suicide bombing attack. The resulting carnage was deplored by both Jewish and Arab leaders in the city.

The suicide bomber, Hanadi Jaradat, was a 27-year-old Palestinian woman apprentice lawyer from Jenin, whose brother, Fadi, 23, was shot to death in Jenin four months ago, and whose cousin, Saleh, 31, was killed during an Israeli military crackdown.

Haifa’s former mayor and now Knesset Labor deputy Amram Mitzna said in a television interview that the bombing was the result of Sharon’s intransigence: “Haifa has become the latest victim of the hard-line anti-peace policy of Ariel Sharon and his ilk, who know only military strikes, instead of negotiations with the Palestinians.”

Immediately after the Haifa restaurant bombing, Palestinian President Yasser Arafat and other spokespersons from the Palestinian Authority denounced the suicide attack as causing grave damage to the Palestinian cause. In spite of this, Israeli government spokespersons again placed the blame on Arafat, holding him directly responsible for the attack. Some cabinet ministers demanded once again that Arafat be exiled or “liquidated.”

The reiteration of these threats, which have been popping up with greater frequency, prompted a group from the Israeli Gush-Shalom peace bloc led by Uri Avnery to enter the partly destroyed headquarters of Arafat in Ramallah to offer the Palestinian leader the protection of a human shield. They were joined by 26 international peace activists from the U.S., Australia, Canada, Ireland and the U.K.

The larger backdrop for the escalation of tensions in the region has been Israel’s relentless building of hundreds of new illegal settlements, its continuing construction of an apartheid wall along the West Bank border, and its unceasing policy of assassinating Palestinian leaders and invading Palestinian towns. The Sharon government appears to be increasingly reckless and bold in its efforts to drive Palestinians off their land, and it has gotten solid support for this campaign from the Bush administration and Congress.

The author can be reached at malmberg@pww.org.
Hans Lebrecht contributed to this article.