- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 5, 2003

WASHINGTON, Jan. 5 (UPI) — Inevitably, Sunday's double suicide bombing attack in Tel Aviv overshadowed the Israeli Defense Ministry's confirmation that it has begun deploying an operational ballistic defense system following successful tests of its upgraded Arrow 2 missile.

Officials in Tel Aviv say the Israeli-built and U.S.-funded Arrow system is being put in place just in time to prevent a recurrence of the disasters of the 1991 Gulf War when Iraqi Scuds rained down on Israel, and the U.S. Patriot anti-missile batteries failed to stop even one of them.

This time, Israel has the capability to defend its cities with what experts are calling one of the most advanced missile defense systems in the world — and has developed its own early warning setup to back it up.

Israel's involvement in the war would complicate the Bush administration's efforts to enlist Arab support for an attack on Iraq — and the Israelis know it. But Sunday's announcement sends a clear message to both Washington and Baghdad that in this war Israel will not have to rely on U.S. defensive support to ward off Iraqi Scuds, whether with conventional or biological warheads. It possesses a formidable defense system of its own and is prepared to use it.

The Arrow defense system is an outgrowth of Ronald Reagan's ambitious Star Wars plan to develop a ballistic missile shield. The Israelis signed on for the project, and when Star Wars first became mired in controversy and then was shelved, they pressed on — with U.S. help — to create their own protective capability.

Current plans call for deployment of a network of Arrow batteries over the next two years to defend Tel Aviv and other major cities. So far, one battery is in place, according to Israeli defense sources. But if the project is continued, Israel could emerge as the first country in the world to have a nationwide anti-ballistic defense system.

With the Israeli elections 23 days away, political observers tend to view everything in terms of campaign strategy. So the Ministry of Defense's announcement Sunday is seen as part of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's vote-getting security package, which includes a large-scale Home Front program of drills against chemical warfare attacks, and joint U.S. and Israeli military exercises.

The irony is that Palestinian militants chose Sunday to resume suicide bombings against Israeli civilians — which Sharon has not been able to halt. One suicide bomber blew himself up in a fast-food restaurant called McChina frequented by foreign workers. A few seconds later, another one followed suit in a shopping center 100 yards away.

By nightfall Sunday the death toll had reached 25, including the two bombers. But officials said several of the injured were in serious condition, and the number of dead could increase.

The militant group Islamic Jihad and the al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade — a militia linked to Yasser Arafat's mainstream Fatah organization — have both claimed responsibility for the attack. Whether it was a joint effort or the two bombers belonged to two different organizations, analysts said there was nothing ambivalent about the choice of location.

Israel has been relying increasingly on foreign workers such as Filipinos and Indians to fill the void left by the Palestinian work force that used to cross the border daily into Israel but doesn't anymore. The bombs were seen as a warning to foreign workers that they are not immune from the attacks in Israel, and should go home.

The twin suicide bombings were a harsh return to street violence in Israel after a 43-day hiatus. The previous bomb outrage had been on Nov. 21 when a Hamas militant blew himself up in a Jerusalem bus, taking 11 passengers with him. The pause had coincided with talks in Cairo under Egyptian auspices between leaders of the Hamas organization and other militant groups on one side and senior representatives of Arafat's Palestinian Authority on the other.

Palestinian sources had said that the Palestine Liberation Organization was pressing militant groups to abandon its strategy of targeting Israeli civilians and focusing instead on defending Palestinian rights and interests in the West Bank and Gaza. Their talks, which have reportedly made little progress, are due to resume soon. Sunday's attacks could be an indication that the militants will continue to refuse to stop recruiting so-called "martyrs" to carry the intifada or Palestinian uprising into the lives of ordinary Israelis.

The conventional wisdom in Tel Aviv was that the attacks would strengthen the chances of electoral success of hard-liner — and election favorite — Sharon, because Israelis would want a leader who can deal harshly with the Palestinians rather than his untried, dovish Labor Party opponent Amran Mitzna.

But another view is that Sharon may have done a good job making Israelis safer from Saddam Hussein's Scuds, but has failed to protect them from the scourge of suicide bombers closer to home, and some voters might hold it against him.

Sunday's bombings have fueled one anxiety among many Israelis: What will the Palestinian militants do when Israel is distracted by the war against Saddam?


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