In Israel's broadest and largest military offensive since Yasser Arafat's Palestinian Authority was formed in 1994, Israeli tanks seized parts of Bethlehem and five other West Bank cities over the weekend. The incursions bring the military back to territory it had vacated under the 1993 Oslo self-rule agreement with the Palestinians.
While the military escalation is taking place in the biblical hilltops of the Holy Land, America's far-away war in Afghanistan is providing some of the rationale - and cover - for it.
The advance - coming on the heels of incursions last Thursday in and around the northern West Bank cities of Ramallah, Nablus, and Jenin, has left 24 Palestinians dead - most of them civilians, and more than 200 wounded, according to the Health Development and Policy Institute in Ramallah. Ten Israeli soldiers were wounded.
"Are the Americans going to preach morality to us now?" a senior Israeli security official was quoted as saying in Haaretz newspaper. "We have seen how cautious they are in their war. They have bombed children and women in Afghanistan."
The Israeli offensive, which also included pushes into Tulkarem and Qalqilya Saturday comes in the aftermath of Wednesday's assassination by Palestinian hard-liners of Israeli Tourism Minister Rehavam Zeevi. That action prompted Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to declare that the rules had changed in Israel's conflict with the Palestinians.
"We are done with Arafat, his regime resembles the Taliban in Afghanistan," Mr. Sharon said.
The analogy was rejected by moderate Foreign Minister Shimon Peres. But its meaning was clear to right-wingers in the Cabinet and to hawkish army commanders: Just as the United States is justified in attacking the Taliban for harboring terrorists, so too is Israel for invading the Palestinian Authority areas.
An Israeli demand that the PA extradite Zeevi's killers, rebuffed by the PA, reinforced the sense that the Sharon government was trying to cast itself in the role of the Bush administration. The PA, wary of appearing to be Israeli collaborators, says that when the killers are found it will place them on trial in its territory.
Israeli tanks are now stationed in front of ministries and public buildings here and in Ramallah. Army officials say troops are "ringing" the West Bank cities, but here they are well inside the city borders, and the range of their tank cannons covers the entire city.
At one of Bethlehem's main intersections, Bab Izqaq, a five-minute drive from the Nativity Church, people were scurrying into a pharmacy yesterday for cover from machine-gun bullets. Nearby, a funeral was being held for a young woman killed on Saturday by shrapnel from a tank shell as she stood at the entrance to a friend's house.
Similar scenes were repeated all over the West Bank. In every case, Israeli troops ploughed into area A - territory governed by the Palestinian Authority under interim peace agreements.
In Manger Square, a teen-aged boy was killed by nearby Israeli troops while there was no fighting going on there, witnesses said.
The show of force clearly signaled Israeli determination following Zeevi's assassination by gunmen from the hard-line Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. But toward what end the Middle East's most powerful army shifted into full gear was far from obvious. Israel had assassinated a Hamas leader, Abdel -Rahman Hammad three days before Zeevi was killed, and on Thursday three militiamen belonging to Mr. Arafat's Fatah faction died in an explosion.
That broke a six-week local truce and touched off shooting against the nearby Gilo settlement and the killing of an Israeli. The army then launched the incursions into Bethlehem and Beit Jala, saying they were necessary in order to stop the shooting toward Gilo.
"The Israelis are exploiting the fact that the Americans are busy with the ground war in Afghanistan in order to reoccupy the Palestinian areas," says pharmacist Sami Ibrahim, a former Fatah activist. "The Israelis are trying to destroy the Palestinian state and the peace process. We call on America to understand what is going on. We are with the Americans in their suffering from terrorism, but we face terrorism daily. Bin Laden is terror, and what the Israelis are doing to us is terror."
The PA Information Minister, Yasser Abed Rabbo, went even further. When Israeli tanks rolled into Ramallah, he told reporters: "Ramallah is New York. And Sharon is bin Laden."
Some Israeli commentators wondered yesterday whether the stated objectives of the incursions - arresting terrorists and preventing attacks against Israeli targets - were serving a larger agenda of satiating far-right political associates of Sharon who believe military force is the way to resolve the conflict with the Palestinians.
Adding to the uncertainty was the question of how long the troops would remain in their new positions. Raanan Cohen, from the relatively moderate Labor party, said: "The conquest of the Palestinian areas is worrisome and may deteriorate into a war." He added that if things got worse, Labor would have to pull out of the national unity coalition it formed with Likud last March to confront the Palestinian uprising.
Left-wing opposition leaders compared the new military drive with the invasion of Lebanon orchestrated by then-Defense Minister Sharon in 1982, a war billed as a week-long antiterrorist operation that lasted more than 18 years and took the lives of some 18,000 Palestinians and Lebanese, and hundreds of Israeli soldiers. "Israel has no interest in staying forever in Palestinian Authority area A, and when we arrest the heads of the terrorist organizations, we will pull out," Sharon told the Cabinet.
Gideon Samet, a Haaretz columnist, said the military activity actually reflects an aversion to diplomacy. "There is no readiness on the Israeli side to engage the Palestinians in full-fledged and serious talks," he said.
In Mr. Samet's view, the reasoning behind the incursions is "to teach Arafat a lesson" so that he will crack down against those attacking Israel. "But this is a mistake," Samet said. "It did not work in the past, it cannot work, and if you look at the history of other national movements, it never worked in those cases either."