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Only 1 suicide bombing hit Israel so far this year

JERUSALEM — It's the kind of milestone many Israelis, for fear of jinxing it, are reluctant to acknowledge: 2007 is on track to become the safest year in Israel since before the second Palestinian uprising more than seven years ago.

There's been only one suicide bombing in Israel this year, a bumbled attack in January that killed three people at a bakery in the Red Sea resort of Eilat.

A Palestinian shift to rocket and mortar attacks as their main weapons against Israel has proved largely ineffective: Only two Israelis have died this year from more than 2,000 Qassam rockets and mortars fired into Israel.

Since rockets fired from the Gaza Strip can't hit Tel Aviv or Jerusalem, the political impact of the near-daily strikes has been muted.

"The suicide attacks were more frightening because they affected everyone in Israel everywhere," said Ely Karmon, a senior scholar at the Institute for Counter-Terrorism in Israel. "Everyone felt threatened: It was in public places, in restaurants, in malls. It was in all the buses and trains. It was clearly a more important strategic weapon."

The virtual halt to successful suicide bombings in Israel can be chalked up to a tapestry of factors:

  • Israel has developed a successful intelligence network that relies on information from Palestinian insiders and electronic surveillance to keep tabs on militants trying to sneak into Israel to carry out attacks.
  • Israel's ever-expanding network of modern checkpoints, concrete walls and electronic fencing that runs through the West Bank has made it more difficult for potential suicide bombers.
  • Hamas, the main Palestinian group behind the suicide bombing campaign, has largely held to its vow to maintain a temporary truce as it has tried to exert its influence through the democratic political process.
  • "Part of the appeal of suicide bombings was that they were successful," said Yoram Schweitzer, a research fellow at Tel Aviv University's Institute for National Security Studies who's done extensive research on Palestinian suicide bombings. "Now ... every time they've tried, they suffered backlash," and the fact that the attacks "didn't work" also "played a role in people's motivation to do it."

    Schweitzer characterized the Gaza rockets as something akin to a nuisance compared with a suicide bombing campaign that might kill 10 or 15 people in a day or a week.

    "The rockets are much less effective in terms of fatalities, and this is very crucial," Schweitzer said. "This is a weapon of harassment, rather than a weapon of killing. It's good for harassment, but at the end of the day, the number of casualties has the largest psychological effect."

    The shift from suicide bombings to rocket attacks has quietly transformed life in Israel's major cities, where social life went underground during the Palestinian intifada, or uprising.

    At the height of the attacks in 2002, there was an average of one suicide bombing a week. In March of that year alone, eight suicide bombers killed 80 people. That year, 173 people were killed in suicide bombings at Israeli cafes, clubs, hotels, bus stops and shopping malls. Israelis lived in fear of getting on buses or stopping at local fast-food joints.

    Israel's military responded to the attacks with major operations in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. Israel's government began building its controversial separation barrier — an expanding chain of concrete walls and electronic fencing that cuts through the West Bank and eliminates easy access to Israel for most Palestinians. Israel also assassinated top Hamas leaders.

    It wasn't until 2005 that a sense of normalcy began to take hold. That January, Palestinians elected pro-Western pragmatist Mahmoud Abbas as their president to succeed Yasser Arafat. A month later, Abbas and then-Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon declared a cease-fire, which brought the Palestinian uprising to an official end.

    Palestinian suicide bombers have killed more than 460 Israelis in more than four years of fighting. At least 3,200 Palestinians were killed by the Israeli military.

    Since then, there've been only seven suicide bombings, including the attack in Eilat on Jan. 29. Instead, Palestinian militants have shifted to rocket attacks as their main weapon against Israel.

    Qassam rockets became a preferred weapon for Palestinian militants last year in the months after Israel pulled all its settlers and soldiers out of the Gaza Strip. That move denied militants the easy targets they once had in the Israeli settlements and soldiers sent there to protect them.

    With the Israeli military still occupying the West Bank, Palestinian militants there haven't been able to develop a similar network of rocket factories, and fatal attacks on West Bank settlers have also hit a historic low: Two Israelis were killed in the West Bank this year, down from a high of 85 in 2002.

    So far, militant groups in Gaza have had little success in creating large numbers of deadlier, advanced rockets that could change the political dynamic. Most of the Qassams, which have no guidance system, can fly about six miles and contain about 10 pounds of explosives.

    Israel is developing a defense system, dubbed Iron Dome, that military leaders hope will knock down most of the rockets and missiles fired at their nation. But the system remains largely untested and won't be ready for several years.

    Israel's bigger concern lies to the north, where Hezbollah forces in Lebanon are believed to hold a significant stockpile of Katyusha rockets and even longer-range weapons capable of hitting Haifa, if not Tel Aviv.

    During its 34-day war with Israel last year, Hezbollah fired more than 4,000 rockets into Israel, killing more than 50 people, injuring hundreds and turning northern Israeli cities into temporary ghost towns.

    The Hezbollah strikes became a model for Palestinian militants, who'd like to import or develop the same weapons. In October, militants in Gaza fired a variation of the Katyusha, known as a Grad, but it landed harmlessly about seven miles inside Israel, and there are few indications that Palestinian militants have succeeded in smuggling in large numbers of the advanced rockets.

    (Churgin is a McClatchy special correspondent.)

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    Read more of Dion Nissenbaum's Middle East reporting at Checkpoint Jerusalem.

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