Israel deploys rockets after 2 soldiers killed

By DEBORAH SONTAG

The New York Times

RAMALLAH, West Bank – Israeli helicopter gunships rocketed Ramallah and Gaza City on Thursday after a Palestinian mob stabbed and stomped to death two Israeli reserve soldiers and then paraded a mutilated body through town.

Blaming the Israelis’ vigilante killings squarely on the Palestinian Authority, Israelis described their rocket attacks as “limited” and “symbolic” responses, delivered with advance warning so the targeted sites could be evacuated and casualties kept low.

But, as Israeli tanks, battleships and helicopters surrounded the Palestinian territories, as propellers chopped through the night and an acrid burnt smell perfumed the air, panicked Palestinians said they did not see anything symbolic in the Israeli actions.

“If this is not war, I don’t know else it is,” said Saeb Erekat, a senior Palestinian official. “If these tanks and choppers firing missiles at a civilian population do not constitute war, then I don’t know what war is.”

What happened Thursday was a collision of what each side sees as the other’s core ugliness: the hate-filled Palestinian mob, in Israeli eyes, vs. the arrogant Israeli military machine, in Palestinian ones. Together they combusted in a devastating blow to the 7-year-old peace effort, unraveling relations between the two sides to a new low.

The Middle East was pushed to the brink of an open war.

Before the rockets started falling, Palestinian youths danced on the bloody spot where one Israeli soldier was tossed out a window into the mob below. In a call and response, they chanted: “Here is where we gouged his eyes! Here is where we ripped off his legs! Here is where we smashed in his face!”

One teen-age boy joyously thrust in the air the oil dipstick from the charred carcass of the soldiers’ car, which had been burnt by the mob and lay curled beneath a billboard that said, “Rule of Law Project.”

Less than an hour later, rockets demolished the police station where the mob attack took place. They also struck a police headquarters in Gaza and knocked out the transmitter for a government radio station that the Israelis hold responsible for “inciting” Palestinian violence. About 16 were wounded in the attacks by early evening, and Palestinians huddled in their homes, some in the dark.

Yasser Arafat, the Palestinian leader, was in Gaza during the aerial attacks. He was not hurt.

“We defined this as a limited operation to send a message that Israel cannot tolerate such a humiliating attack on its citizens and soldiers,” said Shlomo Ben Ami, Israel’s acting foreign minister.

Prime Minister Ehud Barak called it a “pinpoint” operation that was “carried out with precision and success and a minimum of casualties.” He also warned for the second day in a row about a possible revival of terrorism, and cautioned Israelis to display “unusual alertness.”

And Barak once again suggested that all Israeli political parties join him in a national emergency government, specifically inviting the right-wing Likud Party led by Ariel Sharon late Thursday night. The prime minister’s office said talks between the two leaders would continue.

In Washington, President Clinton said: “The alternative to the peace process is no longer hypothetical. It is unfolding today before our eyes.”

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