Mideast clashes shift into test of endurance

The death tolls mount as both sides rachet up attacks, assassinations.

A war of attrition is a waiting game, an ordeal in which two sides try to out-endure the other. Welcome to the current phase of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Sitting in her airy, sunlit living room atop a hill in the Palestinian West Bank, an Israeli settler named Rachel Gvirtzman smiles and says: "We are going into a long time of struggle. People used to say that the Arabs have more patience than we do, but I don't think so. We have time."

Nabeel Amro, a Palestinian Cabinet minister whose office in the West Bank city of Ramallah is perhaps 20 minutes by car from Mrs. Gvirtzman's home, is also patient. For weeks, Mr. Amro has been saying he awaits a "political decision from the Israeli government" to resume peace talks with a new willingness to meet Palestinian demands.

In the meantime, while leaders try to sound resolute and diplomats fret, the seven-week-old Palestinian uprising continues its transition from popular revolt to to armed struggle. The Israelis, possessed of a huge military advantage, are shifting to more-aggressive tactics while insisting they are using "restraint."

With each passing week, despite the waning of world attention, the rhetoric and the violence worsen.

On Monday, for instance, attackers shot and killed a woman much like Gvirtzman, a teacher and mother named Sara Lisha who was being driven to her home in a West Bank settlement. The killing galvanized Israel, partly because it took place on the first day in which the Israeli dead outnumbered the Palestinians killed in this period of clashes.

On Tuesday, a 15-year-old Palestinian boy named Saber Idrees was killed during a demonstration on the outskirts of Ramallah. The Israeli Army said there was an exchange of fire in the area.

Deaths like his have become to commonplace. His name will be added to the list, some 200 names long, of those who have been killed protesting Israel's continued occupation of Palestinian areas. But the routine quality of the daily Palestinian death toll - three on Monday, four on Tuesday, and five at press time yesterday - is itself an indication of just how bad things are getting.

In terms of rhetoric, Palestinian militants are openly speaking of the need to "replace the stone with the bomb." Israeli officials just as openly suggest cutting off supplies of water and electricity to Palestinian areas, where Israeli soldiers already enforce closure orders that bring economic activity nearly to a standstill.

Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat has one idea for containing the escalating unrest. He has spent the past two weeks trying to persuade the US and other powerful nations to back the introduction of an international force to "protect" Palestinians. The Israelis adamantly oppose this plan, and President Clinton has said the US cannot support the measure without Israel's acceptance.

Mr. Arafat's appeal recalls what happened last year in the former Indonesian province of East Timor, where an Australian-led force stanched a wave of violence that began after East Timorese voted for independence. Other conflicts cast their shadows on the Israeli-Palestinian hostilities, too.

Israelis increasingly speak of "Lebanonization," referring to the 18-year misadventure of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) in Lebanon. In the years leading up to the Israeli pullout in July, guerrillas used surprise attacks and hidden bombs to pare down Israel's willingness to watch its troops die on foreign soil.

There are also similarities to America's role in Vietnam. Israeli protesters this week have called on the government to "let the IDF win," a cry that echoes the contention that US officials hobbled the American military in prosecuting the Vietnam War.

Gvirtzman, who lives in a settlement called Dolev, says "the Army can do much better, but I'm not sure the government will let them."

It is a measure of the disconnect between Israel and the Palestinians that The Jerusalem Post - an English-language daily newspaper that takes a hard line in defense of Israeli interests - complained in its editorial yesterday about "excessive military restraint." Since the uprising began, Palestinians have loudly accused the Israelis of the use of excessive force.

As the leaders of the two sides ponder additional measures, the potential consequences loom. Israel could switch to an all-out war footing and easily invade the parts of the West Bank and Gaza Strip that are under full Palestinian control and that are known as area or zone "A" under accords governing Israel's phased withdrawal from Palestinian territories.

"There's no one answer," says Ze'ev Schiff, a military analyst for Israel's Ha'aretz newspaper. "If there was one answer, then of course we can take Zone A and kill thousands of people. But would we win? I'm not so sure. And then we would find ourselves in a regional war."

Even though the Israelis are already overpowering the Palestinians - in one case using helicopter gunships to assassinate an individual accused of responsibility for armed attacks against Israelis - employing even more force incurs the risk that their Arab neighbors will lose patience.

So far, the Arab states have been far from unified on the question of what they should do about the conflict, even though their verbal condemnations of Israel are all pretty similar. But in one telling instance, Saudi Arabia and Iran last week pressured the Persian Gulf state of Qatar to cut its trade ties with Israel, despite the Qatari leader's longtime insistence that regional economic cooperation serves the interest of peace.

On the Palestinian side, recognition is growing that the level of shooting is starting to hurt global perceptions of the Palestinian cause.

News reports indicated that Arafat had ordered a cessation of shooting in a meeting Tuesday evening, but yesterday Palestinians shot at Israelis anyway.

That may be an indication of Arafat's lack of control over what happens on the ground, a topic of constant speculation since this uprising began. Mr. Amro, the Palestinian minister, concedes that without a concomitant Israeli pullback of forces, Arafat's ability to influence his own people is limited.

"It's very difficult for anyone to control the situation if the tanks remain in the same location and if there is shooting from the Israeli side," he says.

Staff writer Nicole Gaouette contributed to this report.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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