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Israel Enjoys Long Lull in Attacks

Times Staff Writer

In fragrant coffeehouses and crowded pizzerias, aboard chugging city buses and amid spice-heaped market stalls, it is a conversation that tends to trail off as soon as it begins. After all, no one wants to tempt fate. “It’s been a long time, hasn’t it? Since ... “

It has been just over three months since Palestinian suicide bombers last struck inside Israel -- the longest such lull in more than three years. That attack was on March 14, a double bombing at the busy Mediterranean harbor in Ashdod that killed 10 port workers.

Suicide attacks became the weapon of choice for Palestinian militant groups about six months into the nearly 4-year-old conflict, and since that grim reality took hold, Israeli cities and towns have not had a respite lasting this long.

The hiatus is something of a taboo topic -- particularly in crowded public places that traditionally have been targeted. But almost everyone has a theory as to what accounts for the lull: the barrier Israel is erecting in the West Bank, Israel’s effort to smash the infrastructure of militant groups such as Hamas or the eddying currents of Palestinian internal politics.

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Senior Israeli security officials cite another factor: the fickle juxtaposition of good intelligence and good luck. The letup in attacks, they say, is not for any lack of trying on the militants’ part.

Last week, Israel’s chief of military intelligence, Maj. Gen. Aharon Zeevi-Farkash, told lawmakers that among the dozens of recent foiled attacks was one in which six bombers had planned to blow themselves up simultaneously. Another recently uncovered bomb plot involved two teenage Palestinian girls, the Israeli military said.

“All it takes,” a senior security official told journalists last week, “is for one to get through.”

For Israelis, the lull has brought an easing of the gnawing anxiety that has come to accompany everyday actions, like taking a trip to the ice-cream parlor or having coffee with a friend at a sunny sidewalk cafe.

“Before, everyone was as jumpy as a cat, talking about nothing but attacks all day long,” Aaron Saadyan, 49, said as he waited to board a bus in Tel Aviv. “Now, everyone’s more relaxed, less stressed -- these bad thoughts are more in the back of the mind.”

As the conflict has dragged on, few Israelis have remained unacquainted with the sights and sounds of a suicide bombing: the sudden thunderous blast audible from halfway across town, the few heartbeats’ worth of ominous silence. Then come the quick wail of sirens, gathering in strength and intensity, and the familiar televised tableau of another blown-up bus or blood-spattered restaurant.

Suicide attacks have accounted for the majority of Israeli civilian deaths and injuries over the course of the conflict. But the number and toll of attacks have been dropping sharply for months.

Last year, 23 suicide bombings in Israel killed 104 people; this year, three such attacks claimed 29 victims.

“That is still not a small number; it is still painful,” commentator Ofer Shelah wrote last week in the Yediot Aharonot newspaper. “But relative to the very recent past and in relation to the number of attempts to commit attacks, it denotes the security forces’ success.”

Israeli officials say the most important factor in the falloff in suicide bombings has been the building of a barrier -- part fortified fence, part concrete wall -- that is intended to run along the length of the West Bank. The north of Israel, which abuts the completed section of the barrier, has not had a suicide attack in more than eight months.

But the barrier has disrupted the lives of tens of thousands of Palestinians who are cut off from land and livelihoods, schools and kin. Protests against the construction take place almost daily, often turning into violent clashes between demonstrators and Israeli troops.

The lull comes at a time when many Israelis feared a season of suicide bombings lay before them. The militant group Hamas vowed revenge after Israel assassinated its founder and spiritual leader, Sheik Ahmed Yassin, on March 22 and killed his successor, Abdulaziz Rantisi, a month later.

Israeli analysts and security officials strongly caution against writing off Hamas. Even with its leadership underground and its mid-level ranks decimated by assassinations, the group’s secretive cells are considered capable of mounting suicide attacks.

“It’s harder for them now, but they still have the operational capacity,” said Gil Feiler, an analyst at Bar-Ilan University. “And right now they are less interested in small attacks -- they would like to carry out a mega-attack.”

In recent months, Hamas has been pursuing political aims, sending signals to Yasser Arafat’s Palestinian Authority that it wants to be part of the leadership structure in the Gaza Strip if and when Israel carries out a planned withdrawal.

Arafat’s role, if any, in the lull is unclear. Aides say he took Israeli threats this year to kill or expel him very seriously. However, Israel has indicated that it would probably not act against him unless there were some precipitating event, such as a bombing that claimed many lives.

Palestinian officials say Israeli tactics may have succeeded in stifling suicide bombings but not the underlying fury and frustration that propel them.

Many Palestinians say they are bitter over the worldwide media attention that comes after suicide bombings in Israel, while relatively little attention is paid to the unrelenting daily tolls in the West Bank and Gaza.

For Palestinians, last month was one of the bloodiest of the intifada, with 111 people killed, about three-quarters of them combatants. Most of those deaths came during Israeli military incursions into crowded refugee camps in Gaza.

Experience shows that a reduction in overall violence can sometimes be conducive to peace moves, while even a single attack can cause Israeli policymakers and the public to resist conciliatory gestures toward the Palestinians.

In a recent example of that, pollsters say the margin of defeat of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s Gaza withdrawal plan in a party referendum May 2 was probably widened when an Israeli woman and her three daughters were killed that day by Palestinian gunmen near their Gaza settlement.

Even a short respite between bombings brings Israelis out in public in droves. In central Jerusalem, cafes that were the scene of previous suicide attacks have been full again -- though most establishments have guards with hand-held metal detectors.

“There’s always the fear,” said Sigal Armoni, an elegant middle-aged woman shopping in Tel Aviv’s busy Dizengoff Center. “I hope something has truly changed, but let’s see how long this tranquillity lasts.”

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Special correspondent Tami Zer in Tel Aviv contributed to this report.


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