Published on Tuesday, November 21, 2000 in the New York Times
After Gaza Rocket Attack, State Dept. Gives Israel Stern Warning
by Jane Perlez

WASHINGTON The murderous new cycle of violence in Gaza yesterday drew the most severe warning to Israel by the Clinton administration since the fighting broke out seven weeks ago.

Soon after rockets from Israeli helicopters and ships were shown live on television here lighting up the night sky over Gaza, the State Department issued a statement that said, in part, "The Israelis also need to understand that the excessive use of force is not the right way to go."

The statement began by condemning the "heinous attack" against a school bus filled with Israeli children and called on the Palestinian Authority to condemn the incident similarly. Released by the spokesman for the department, Richard A. Boucher, the statement noted that more than 240 people had been killed in nearly two months of violence, a vast majority of them Palestinians.

Mr. Boucher added, "Both sides need to exercise restraint and responsibility under the Sharm el Sheik agreement," a reference to a truce agreed on last month.

Missile Remains
A Palestinian policeman shows journalists the remain of a missile November 21, 2000, which officials allege was maunfactured in the United States, after Israeli helicopters launched an attack on Palestinian security targets in the Gaza Strip in retaliation for the bombing of a jewish settlers' school bus. The Palestinian Authority denounced Israeli missile strikes on Monday as "criminal aggression" and called for foreign intervention to protect Palestinians. REUTERS/Ahmed Jadallah
The administration was careful in wording its statement today not to declare the Israeli rocket attacks specifically as excessive, relying rather on cautionary diplomatic language. But the meaning was unambiguous. Privately, senior administration officials described the Israeli response to the bombing of the bus, in which two Israeli adults were killed, as disproportionate and excessive.

The statement was quite likely to raise ire among Israeli officials who have complained that the United States, as Israel's chief ally and its major security partner, has tried to be too even-handed in its approach to the recent violence.

In response to the complaints, Washington officials have said the United States, as a mediator, has to try to keep the trust of both sides.But after the attacks today, questions arose about how much of a mediator role the United States would have.

Administration officials said they were waiting for the toll from the attacks to gauge whether the events had extinguished flickers of hope for persuading the Israelis and Palestinians to return to the negotiating table.

There was no doubt that tit-for-tat attacks and their gravity was a galling setback as the clock ticked away for the Clinton administration and as Ramadan, often a combustive period in the Arab world, approaches.

In the last few days, administration officials said, they have detected some faint but rising possibility of the two sides' coming back to talks with President Clinton.

The ever-so-slight optimism arose after the Palestinian leader, Yasir Arafat, acting on a telephone call last week from Mr. Clinton to restore calm, publicly urged his people to stop shooting Israelis from areas on the West Bank and in Gaza that the Palestinians totally control.

He did not mention territory under Israeli security. Still, the Americans and the Israelis regarded Mr. Arafat's gesture as a beginning.

Further, a decrease in violence in the last several days and an announcement by Israel that it would not retaliate for the fatal shooting on Saturday of a soldier by a Palestinian security officer in Gaza created a sense that a new period of restraint was, perhaps, under way.

"Both sides in words and deed have manifested that they want to overcome the violence," an administration official said today.

Mr. Barak faulted Fatah, Mr. Arafat's political movement, for the bus bombing. An administration official said that Washington did not know who was responsible but that the Palestinians had to "take action to arrest" those responsible.

Mr. Arafat and Prime Minister Ehud Barak of Israel told Mr. Clinton in recent meetings at the White House that they wanted to return to talks, the official said.

After those sessions, administration officials acknowledged that negotiations were a long shot but reasoned that Mr. Barak, who is in dismal standing in Israeli opinion polls, needed some agreement and that Mr. Arafat would like one before Mr. Clinton leaves office.

The administration was encouraged, officials said, that Mr. Barak kept making the argument to his cabinet that his policy of "restraint" toward the Palestinians was necessary.

Further, a few days ago he began negotiating an extension of his agreement with the ultraorthodox Shas Party, an accord that has allowed Mr. Barak to stave off having to form a national unity government that would no doubt rule out the possibility of peace talks with the Palestinians.

Copyright 2000 The New York Times Company