On the near horizon, a de facto suspension of hostilities was taking shape. The Egyptians had made great efforts to turn it into an official cease-fire. The flame was already burning visibly lower. The launching of Qassams and Grads from the Gaza Strip into Israel had fallen from dozens a day to two or three.
And then something happened that turned the flame up high again: undercover soldiers of the Israeli army killed four Palestinians militants in Bethlehem. A fifth was killed in a village near Tulkarm.
THE MODUS OPERANDI left no doubt about the intention.
As usual, the official version was mendacious. (When the army spokesman speaks the truth, he is ashamed and immediately hurries on to the next lie.) The four, it was said, drew their weapons and endangered the life of the soldiers, who only wanted to arrest them, so they were compelled to open fire.
Anyone with half a brain knows that this is a lie. The four were in a small car on the main street of Bethlehem, the road that has joined Jerusalem and Hebron since British (or Turkish) times. They were indeed armed, but they had no chance at all of drawing their weapons. The car was simply sprayed with dozens of bullets.
That was not an attempt to make an arrest. That was an execution, pure and simple, one of those summary executions in which the Shin Bet fulfils the roles of prosecutor, judge and executioner.
This time no effort was even made to pretend that the four were about to carry out a murderous attack. It was not claimed, for example, that they had anything to do with last week's attack on the Mercaz Harav seminary, the flagship of the settlers' fleet. Actually, no such pretense could be put forward, because the most important of the four had recently given interviews to the Israeli media and announced that he was availing himself of the Israeli "pardon scheme" - a Shin Bet program under which "wanted" militants give up their arms and undertake to cease resistance to the occupation. He was also a candidate in the last Palestinian elections.
If so, why where they killed? The Shin Bet did not hide the reason: two of the four had participated in attacks in 2001 in which Israelis were killed.
"Our long arm will get them even years later," Ehud Barak boasted on TV, "we shall get everyone with Jewish blood on his hands."
SIMPLY PUT: The Defense Minister and his men endangered today's cease-fire in order to avenge something that happened seven years ago.
It was obvious to all that the killing of Islamic Jihad militants in Bethlehem would cause the renewal of the Qassam launchings on Sderot. And so it happened.
The effect of a Qassam rocket is completely unpredictable. For the residents of Sderot, this is a kind of Israeli Roulette - the rocket may fall in an empty field, it may fall on a building, sometimes it kills people.
In other words, according to Barak himself, he was ready to risk Jewish lives today in order to take revenge on persons who may perhaps have shed blood years ago and have since given up their armed activity.
The emphasis is on the word "Jewish". In his statement, Barak took care not to speak about persons "with blood on their hands", but about those "with Jewish blood on their hands". Jewish blood, of course, is quite different from any other blood. And indeed, there is no person in the Israeli leadership with so much blood on his hands as him. Not abstract blood, not metaphorical blood, but very real red blood. In the course of his military service, Barak has personally killed quite a number of Arabs. Whoever shakes his hand - from Condoleezza Rice to this week's honored guest, Angela Merkel - is shaking a hand with blood on it.
THE BETHLEHEM killing raises a number of hard questions, but with very few exceptions, the media did not voice them. They shirk their duty, as usual when it concerns "security" problems.
Real journalists in a real democratic state would have asked the following questions:
The media did not demand that Olmert and Barak expose to the public the considerations that led them to adopt this decision, which concerns every person in Israel. And no wonder. These are, after all, the same media that danced for joy when the same government started an ill-considered and superfluous war in Lebanon. They are also the same media that kept silent, this week, when the government decided to hit the freedom of the press and to boycott the Aljazeera TV network, as punishment for showing babies killed during the Israeli army's recent incursion in Gaza.
But for two or three courageous journalists with an independent mind, all our written and broadcast media march in lockstep, like a Prussian regiment on parade, when the word "security" is mentioned.
(This phenomenon was exposed this week in CounterPunch by a journalist named Yonatan Mendel, a former employee of the popular Israeli web-site Walla. He pointed out that all the media, from the Channel 1 news program to the Haaretz news pages, as if by order, voluntarily use exactly the same slanted terminology: the Israeli army confirms and the Palestinians claim, Jews are murdered while Palestinians are killed or find their death, Jews are abducted while Arabs are arrested, the Israeli army always responds while the Palestinians always attack, the Jews are soldiers while Arabs are terrorists or just murderers, the Israeli army always hits high-ranking terrorists and never low-ranking terrorists, men and women suffering from shock are always Jews, never Arabs. And, as we said, people with blood on their hands are always Arabs, never-ever Jews. This, by the way, also goes for much of the foreign coverage of events here.)
WHEN THE GOVERNMENT does not disclose its intentions, we have no choice but to deduce its intentions from its actions. That is a judicial rule: when a person does something with a foreseeable result, it is assumed that he did it in order to obtain this result.
The government which decided on the killing in Bethlehem undoubtedly intended to torpedo the cease-fire.
Why does it want to do so?
There are several possible kinds of cease-fire. The most simple is the cessation of hostilities on the Gaza Strip border. No Qassams, Grads and mortar shells on the one side, no targeted assassinations, bombardments, shelling and incursion on the other side.
It is known that the army objects to that. They want to be free to "liquidate" from the air and raid on the ground. They want a one-sided cease-fire.
A limited cease-fire is impossible. Hamas cannot agree to it, as long as the blockade cuts the Strip off on all sides and turn life there into hell - not enough medicines, not enough food, the seriously ill cannot reach appropriate hospitals, the movement of cars has come to an almost complete standstill, no imports or exports, no production or commercial activity. The opening of all border crossings for the movement of goods is, therefore, an essential component of a cease-fire.
Our government is not willing to do that, because it would mean the consolidation of the Hamas government in the Gaza Strip. Government sources hint that Abbas and his people in Ramallah also object to the lifting of the blockade - a malicious rumor, because it would mean that Abbas is conducting a war against his own people. President Bush also rejects a cease-fire, even while his people pretend the opposite. Europe, as usual, is trailing along behind the US.
Can Hamas agree to a cease-fire that would apply only to the Gaza Strip but not to the West Bank? That is doubtful. This week it was proven that the Islamic Jihad organization in Gaza cannot stand idly by while its members are killed in Bethlehem. Hamas could not stand by in Gaza and enjoy the fruits of government if the Israeli army were to kill Hamas militants in Nablus or Jenin. And, of course, no Palestinian would agree that the Gaza Strip and the West Bank are two separate entities.
A Gaza-only cease-fire would allow Barak to blow it to pieces at any moment by a Bethlehem-style provocation. This is how it could go: Hamas agrees to a Gaza-only cease-fire, the Israeli army kills a dozen Hamas members in Hebron, Hamas responds by launching Grad missiles at Ashkelon, Olmert tells the world: You see? The terrorist Hamas is violating the cease-fire, which proves that we have no partner!
This means that a real and durable cease-fire, which would create the necessary atmosphere for real peace negotiations, must include the West Bank, too. Olmert-Barak would not dream of agreeing to that. And as long as George Bush is around, there will be no effective pressure on our government.
A PROPOS: who is really in charge in Israel at this time?
This week's events point to the answer: the man who makes the decisions is Ehud Barak, the most dangerous person in Israel, the very same Barak who blew up the Camp David conference and persuaded the entire Israeli public that "we have no partner for peace".
2052 years ago today, on the Ides of March, Julius Caesar was assassinated. Ehud Barak sees himself as a latter-day local replica of the Roman general. He, too, would dearly want to report: "I came, I saw, I conquered."
But the reality is rather different: He came, he saw, he destroyed.