Three security officials attached to the U.S. embassy in Tel Aviv were killed Wednesday when a remote-controlled car bomb was detonated in Gaza. It's not the first time in the three-year-long running battle between Israelis and Palestinians that official U.S. representatives have been attacked, but it's the first time there were fatalities.
These security officials are only the latest Americans to be killed by so-far unidentified assailants the Bush administration calls "terrorists."
Driving into Gaza in a three-car convoy displaying diplomatic license plates with numbers identifying the vehicles as belonging to the U.S. embassy in Tel Aviv, the security personnel were accompanying American diplomats who were on their way to interview Palestinian students and teachers applying for Fulbright scholarships to study or teach in the U.S.
Was the car bombing carried out by Hamas, Islamic Jihad, the Palestinian Front for the Liberation of Palestine, or by al Qaeda? Was the attack intended against another target and were the Americans simply unlucky? We do not know the answers to these questions yet, and it may not matter.
But this much is clear: It's dangerous to be an American abroad and it's also dangerous to be a friend of America overseas.
In Baghdad, where the danger is greatest, American soldiers may be the most frequent targets but they are not the only ones. America's allies have clearly, and predictably, also been targets of Saddam's loyalists or others who oppose what they see as an American occupation. Indeed, one member of Iraq's Governing Council, approved by the U.S., was killed by political opponents.
The Jordanian embassy was bombed and the decision by Turkey to send its troops to be peacekeepers in Iraq was followed by an attempt to attack the Turkish embassy in Baghdad. The U.N .has been hit several times and hotels where American officials or journalists are staying have received threats.
Terrorists have limited capabilities but, increasingly, they are becoming more sophisticated in applying their weapons and tactics to hit more powerful opponents in effective ways. That's why American soldiers are dying regularly after being struck with RPGs and roadside bombs, and that's what appears to have happened in Gaza, too.
Following Wednesday's attack, the U.S. embassy in Tel Aviv advised all American citizens in Gaza to depart the area and cautioned Americans in the West Bank to take extra precautions regarding their personal safety.
As FBI and other investigators begin to sort out what happened, another question will have to be addressed by policymakers in Washington: Should the U.S. now take a more active role in pursuing "terrorists" – whether Hamas, Islamic Jihad or al Qaeda – in Gaza and the West Bank?
Israelis have long sent their soldiers into Palestinian areas to seek out and kill those who have killed Israeli civilians. Given the reluctance of Palestinian political leaders to go after terror cells in Gaza and the West Bank, will President Bush use the tragic deaths of three Americans in Gaza as grounds for America to enter the next phase in his war on terrorism?
Such a decision would be logical from a policy perspective, although politically difficult because it would be another place where American soldiers were going after Arabs and Muslims. And for anyone who thinks it would be an easy task, just ask the Israeli military, which has been at it a long, long time without being able to successfully stop such acts of terror.