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Tiny Steps Against Big Odds

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Weeks of escalating mayhem in Israel and the occupied territories made for overwhelming odds against Secretary of State Colin L. Powell bringing sudden peace to the region. Yet he has spurred concessions that we hope will have a subtle cooling effect--which would be a small but significant success in that roiling inferno.

Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, unfortunately, has been his usual recalcitrant self, attacking Israeli “massacres and blood baths plaguing our people.” But he did belatedly condemn “violent operations that target Israeli civilians,” including Friday’s Jerusalem suicide bombing that killed six Israelis and injured scores more at an outdoor market. That landed him a meeting with Powell, who had made such a statement a prerequisite.

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has defied U.S. demands that Israel stop its military offensive against cities in the occupied territories, but Monday he told President Bush he planned to pull troops and tanks out of Jenin and Nablus in a week or less.

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Earlier, Sharon suggested holding a regional peace conference--so long as Arafat did not attend. That condition is unacceptable to Palestinians and their Arab allies. There are ways around the problem, however, such as convening a meeting for lower-level diplomats.

Palestinians say Israeli troops have committed atrocities and killed hundreds in Jenin. Israelis put the death toll in the dozens and say the offensive is part of Israel’s fight for existence. Both sides, no doubt, are wielding the powerful weapon of propaganda. But on that front, Israel has blundered. By aggressively keeping reporters out of the battle zones, in some cases at gunpoint, it has assured rising suspicion and the declining sympathy that invariably accompanies such distrust.

It is clear that Israel’s door-to-door searches, bulldozing of houses and rocket attacks on refugee camps have injured or killed an unknown number of Palestinian civilians and created many new Palestinian enemies. Soldiers searching for armed guerrillas protected by inhabitants of overcrowded cities may be quick on the trigger, especially when their comrades have been killed by booby traps, as happened in Jenin last week. But residents say Israeli soldiers shot unarmed civilians and knocked down houses with owners inside.

That is not to equate army attacks with terrorism by suicide bombers. But the distinction will be lost if it turns out that Israel, which has long prided itself on its defense forces’ professionalism, kills indiscriminately too. Thanks to Sharon’s orders, there were few if any independent witnesses.

Visiting Syria and Lebanon Monday, Powell warned that guerrilla attacks on northern Israel could expand the conflict. Indeed the stakes are high. Now, if he could get Israel to withdraw from the occupied cities, it would be a step toward securing the northern border. Getting the Palestinians to heed Arafat’s condemnation of violence would be a step toward a political solution to the conflict.

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