Now, Israel must define the enemy

JERUSALEM — JERUSALEM -- Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin faces a novel problem in carrying out his vow to wage war against Palestinian extremists: He must sort out his enemies from his allies.

It was much simpler for Israeli leaders when all the Palestinian factions were the enemy.


The difficulties of his task have pushed Mr. Rabin further toward a notable change in Israeli policy. Mr. Rabin now bluntly rejects the concept of a "Greater Israel" including Jewish settlement of the West Bank, and seems determined to build a border between Israelis and Palestinians.

The Israeli prime minister has never been enamored with the permanent Jewish settlements in the West Bank, encouraged by rightist Israeli governments for most of 15 years. But he has never before so clearly dismissed them.


In his speech after the bus bombing in Tel Aviv on Wednesday, he called for "separation" and "a clear line of demarcation" between Jews and Arabs here no less than six times.

"Whoever wants a Greater Land of Israel is expressing the greatest hope of Hamas," Mr. Rabin said pointedly to the settlers. "A mingling of Jews and Arabs, of Israelis and the residents of the territories . . . will not allow a war on terrorism."

The prime minister, schooled in a long army career, is thinking tactics. He wants to regroup because his lines are intermixed, and the enemy is not clear.

Mr. Rabin swore he would wage war against the Muslim fundamentalist Hamas organization after the suicide bombing of bus in Tel Aviv killed 21 and injured 45.

But he was quickly caught up in the difficulties of that vow. Most options for action could have a side effect of destabilizing the authority of Yasser Arafat, chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organization.

Help for Arafat

After years of conflict with the PLO, Israel signed an agreement ++ with Mr. Arafat last year and now needs to strengthen his authority in Jericho and the Gaza Strip to continue the peace process.

Mr. Rabin acknowledged as much Wednesday, in a change of tone for him. Before, he had held the PLO responsible for stopping all attacks on Israelis. Now, he said, the PLO should not be blamed for the acts of Hamas.


Hamas "is an enemy which must be defined, and it should not be made to include others," he said. "Not those Palestinians who want peace with us."

His shift may have been a lesson from the kidnapping and murder of Israeli soldier Nashon Wachsman last week. For four days, Mr. Rabin insisted that the soldier was being held in Gaza and he angrily demanded that the PLO find him. But the hostage was being held near Ramallah, in an area controlled by the Israeli army.

"I cannot demand that they be responsible when we are speaking about the territory . . . in which we are the military authority," Mr. Rabin said.

Israel's first step after Wednesday's bus bombing was to impose a closure on the West Bank and Gaza Strip, prohibiting the 1.8 million Palestinians from coming to Israel for work, school, prayer or medical care. Mr. Rabin bowed to Israeli public clamor for the measure even as he acknowledged its futility:

"A closure . . . without a clear line of demarcation, without separation . . . will not prevent Hamas from having the ability to carry out attacks like this" no matter its duration, he said. "What, will the Hamas disappear after 10 days? After eight months?"

The closure further impoverishes the Palestinians and creates more difficulties for Mr. Arafat's attempt to make a success of the fledgling autonomy in the Gaza Strip and West Bank.


Risky ideas

Other actions being weighed by Israel carry a similar risk. If Israel sends its army into the Gaza Strip to carry out mass arrests of suspected Hamas members, for example, the Palestinian public may see autonomy -- and Mr. Arafat's authority -- as no different from occupation.

If Palestinians see the peace process and Mr. Arafat as giving them no protection from punishment by Israel, they may reject it and turn to extremists like Hamas.

Mr. Rabin's options also could bring a backlash from other countries and human rights groups. Among the possibilities being considered, according to reports here, is deportation of suspected Hamas members. A deportation of 415 men suspected of being Hamas members in December 1992 created a storm of international condemnation.

Also on the table are actions such as demolishing the houses of people suspected of belonging to Hamas or sealing them to keep family members outside, imposing long imprisonment without trial, and banning political gatherings.

Most of those actions violate Geneva conventions, and already have brought protests. Human Rights Watch in New York said it was "gravely concerned" by Mr. Rabin's speech.


Mr. Rabin is well known for his low regard of such protests. Even Wednesday night, he boasted of the 1992 deportation: "I carried out a large-scale expulsion on a scale which no previous government of Israel dared," he said.

He complained of restrictions imposed by the Israel Supreme Court on the action of Israeli secret police.

He cited specifically the guidelines set up by a 1987 government commission that limit interrogators to using "moderate physical pressure" when questioning Palestinians. Critics say the commission's guidelines -- most of which still are secret -- condone torture. Mr. Rabin said they are too strict.

No 'kid gloves'

"There are those who believe it is possible to fight Hamas with kid gloves, taking into account the demands of Israeli law against using physical force," he said. He said he wanted authority to operate "without complicated legal nonsense, and I do not want to have to provide any explanations."

"I believe we need to find methods so that Hamas' suicidal murderers will know that not only are they liable to be killed during their activities, but that their homes, the homes of their families, could be damaged. . . . They would know that they were not only risking their lives, they were also risking those close to them and their homes."


Other government ministers apparently have dissuaded Mr. Rabin from pushing for those changes, leaving the prime minister puzzling over a hand without a good card.