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Intifada slides toward war

The Israeli army attacked a Palestinian refugee camp yesterday in retaliation for earlier mortar fire.

By Nicole Gaouette Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / April 12, 2001


Israeli tanks, bulldozers and helicopters attacked a Palestinian refugee camp in Gaza early yesterday morning, retaliating for mortar fire and underscoring Israel's increasingly tough strong-arm strategy.

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The Israeli incursion was the largest, possibly the first into Palestinian territory and a major escalation in the ongoing conflict.

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is now hitting Palestinian targets harder, faster, and more intensely, while using the cudgel of blunt rhetoric to convey Israel's frustration. As he does, Palestinians are targeting Israeli settlements with the heavier weaponry of mortars, as opposed to guns, and redefining their uprising as a "war."

As both sides nudge their spiral of conflict upward, they are confirming each other's suspicions and all but ensuring the growth of further hostilities. Among analysts and officials, there is an increasing sense that this struggle could last for years.

"Even Sharon publicly admits there's no quick fix, that it will take time," says Mark Heller, a senior research associate at the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University. "It could be protracted."

He points to earlier conflicts - including the 1930s Arab Revolt against Zionists in the region and the intifada, or Palestinian uprising, of 1987 to 1993 - that stretched on for years.

"Neither of those things ended with a formal agreement or ceremonial signing," notes Mr. Heller. "It may well be that will happen this time. It's a kind of attrition."

For now, the conflict feeds on itself. Mr. Sharon has repeatedly stressed that his government will not negotiate with the Palestinian Authority until violence stops. Palestinians, referring to Israeli settlements, insist that they have a right to fight against an Israeli presence in their territories.

Israeli reprisals prompt Palestinian rebuttals, and the call and response of heavy fire has lit the night skies over Gaza every night for the past week.

"As long as there is no intention or promise to end the occupation, as long as it puts Palestinian populations under shelling every day, with what logic can anybody ask Palestinians not to respond to the Israeli violence?" asks Ghassan Khatib, director of the Jerusalem Media Communications Center.

But to conservative Israelis, Palestinians are the architects of their own problems.

"Israel doesn't want to maintain control over any territory beyond what's needed," says Gerald Steinberg, director of the program on conflict management and negotiation at Bar Ilan University outside Tel Aviv. "Palestinians, by increasing the violence, increase the need for security and therefore increase what they call the occupation."

But Mr. Khatib says that to stop fighting would be to accept the occupation and the daily violence it imposes on all Palestinians. He says that has become an unacceptable option given Sharon's vows not to honor any previously signed agreements and given his more recent comments to the press.