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.
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.
Speaking to Haaretz newspaper last week, the prime minister announced he has no intention of evacuating Israeli settlements in the Palestinian territories - even if there is a peace. The settlements, built on land Israel occupied in 1967, which are illegal under international law, are a major stumbling block to negotiations. Just last week, the US condemned Israeli plans for settlement expansion, which Israelis attribute to "natural population increase[s]."
In the same newspaper interview, Sharon issued a warning to Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, advising him that a unilateral declaration of statehood would prompt Israel to move militarily.
"It would demand that we take a series of steps to keep in our hands areas essential for us," Sharon said.
In this hostile atmosphere, there is little room for either Sharon or Mr. Arafat to negotiate without losing face.
If Arafat has enough control to end the intifada - a point of frequent debate - he could only do so if Israel offered him the olive branch of a concession or two. To do otherwise, Arafat would leave himself open to charges that he gave in to Sharon, a development that could pose physical as well as political risks.
Sharon, meanwhile, insists that any contact between his envoys and the Palestinians is simply to reduce violence.
The prime minister reportedly has given Foreign Minister Shimon Peres the green light to start new behind-the-scenes talks, though media reports stress that these talks would not involve diplomatic negotiations.
"The [Israeli] government is also walking this high wire," says Heller. "It has to look like it's not backing down from its commitment not to negotiate under fire, but when it says it's not negotiating, everybody takes that with a grain of salt. They understand Sharon can't stop the violence in a political vacuum."
In the meantime, the clashes continue. In the early morning hours yesterday, Israeli tanks and bulldozers rumbled into Khan Younis refugee camp, razing and damaging about 30 homes and an olive grove, and setting off a massive gun battle.
Hundreds of Palestinians responded to calls from mosque loudspeakers to join Palestinian security forces and fight back, according to wire reports that described chants of "Allahu Akbar" (God is Greatest) echoing through the streets. Two Palestinians were killed and 25 were injured in the confrontation.
Since fighting broke out in the fall, 467 people have been killed, including 384 Palestinians, 64 Israeli Jews and 19 others.
The Israelis, who codenamed the action "Enjoyable Song," were acting to remove barriers used by the Palestinians as cover for mortar and gunfire attacks on nearby settlements.
The operation, combined with the first daylight missile strikes for months against Palestinian police posts in Gaza on Tuesday, represented a sharp escalation by Israeli forces in their bid to stamp out firing on Jewish settlements.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor