As Israelis reeled from a devastating shooting attack in downtown Jerusalem late Tuesday, and Palestinians faced unprecedentedly broad army incursions in the West Bank, there was a sense that Middle East violence was again spinning out of control.
Amid the feeling that worse was yet to come, Israelis debated how things had reached this point: Was Palestinian enmity and ill-intent a constant, or had Prime Minister Ariel Sharon triggered the escalation in a bid to avert concessions that would emanate from resumed peace negotiations?
Mr. Sharon continues to enjoy broad public support. But in a sign of increasing skepticism his approach was openly challenged yesterday by the speaker of the Knesset Avraham Burg. Mr. Burg said, if necessary, he would defy the prime minister and would accept an invitation to address the Palestinian legislative council in Ramallah. He was invited to do so yesterday by the council's speaker Ahmad Qurei.
The scene in Jerusalem's Bikur Holim Hospital Tuesday has become all too familiar during the 16 months of the intifada uprising: civilians being treated after Palestinian attacks. Haim Saleh, sitting on his bed, recalled how a Palestinian with an automatic weapon had opened fire on his bus as it pulled out of the station.
"I thought he would finish all of us," he said. "I quickly drove away from him." Fourteen people were wounded and two killed. The gunman, a member of the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade militia of Arafat's Fatah faction, was shot dead.
The shooting was the latest in a dizzying string of assassinations, attacks, and incursions that has put a definitive end to a cease-fire call by Palestinian President Yasser Arafat issued on Dec. 16. In the Israeli army's view, the cease-fire was simply a lull before Mr. Arafat could spring the next escalation.
The eruption of Palestinian violence started after Raed Karmi, a leader of the militia affiliated with Arafat's Fatah movement, died in an explosion that Israeli analysts - and Palestinian leaders - said was the work of the army.
Immediately afterward there were two deadly roadside attacks by Palestinians in the West Bank. Two days later, a Fatah militiaman and follower of Karmi shot up a bat mitzvah celebration, killing six people.
Israel then expanded its hold in Ramallah and blew up the Palestinian television and radio studios there. Its troops then reoccupied all of Tulkarem, the first time Israel has recaptured all of a Palestinian city - later pulling back to the outskirts.
In Nablus, they took over a neighborhood and killed four members of Hamas in what the army said was a gunfight, but which Palestinian officials said were assassinations. The army said troops had destroyed an explosives workshop.
At each stage of the escalation, there have been mounting voices in Israel arguing that Sharon's government had sabotaged Arafat's cease-fire. The reason, say analysts and opposition politicians, is that a return to negotiations would entail a freeze on the Jewish settlements Sharon has spent much of his political life building and expanding.
The settlements, built in contravention of international law on occupied territory, are to be frozen in the event a cease-fire endures and steps toward negotiations begin in accordance with the recommendations of a US-led fact-finding committee, the Mitchell Report.
"If you look at this cycle, it is naïve to think it is accidental," says Akiva Eldar, a Haaretz columnist. "Whenever Arafat is arresting people and terrorism is reduced, Sharon takes some action. Sharon wants to stave off any attempt to bring him and Arafat to the same table. He believes this is a zero-sum game and that there is no place for two peoples.
"His idea is that if we show enough resilience, the Palestinians will disappear as a national entity or pack their belongings and go somewhere else. His goal is not only to keep the settlements in place, but to finish off the Oslo agreement and get rid of the PLO."
Didi Remez, a spokesman for Peace Now, says Sharon is intent on "destroying the very infrastructure of Israel's relations with the [Palestinian Authority] and the PA itself."
Mr. Remez that the army and far-right elements in the government are likely to bring about the reoccupying of the Palestinian cities in the West Bank. "Sharon is proceeding very wisely. A few months ago, invading Tulkarem would have created bells and whistles, but he has been moving incrementally, rather than through drastic moves. You don't notice things day by day, but when you compare with the situation of a few months ago, the change is drastic."
Yuval Steinitz, a Likud member of the Knesset, says it is the Palestinians who have escalated the conflict. "The question is not who started this round of violence, but who started the violence, a year and a half ago," he says.
"For eight years we have seen vicious circles of violence on and off. Arafat wants to continue the mutual bleeding, cause a deterioration in Israel's position in the world and bring an end to the Jewish state. To achieve this, he is sophisticated enough to increase and reduce the violence."
The weapons ship which the Israeli navy seized several weeks ago is proof that Arafat has forged an alliance with Iran and was planning an escalation even as he spoke of a cease-fire, according to Israeli army chief of staff Shaul Mofaz. Mr. Mofaz told reporters Sunday night that "the Palestinians want escalation. There has been no strategic fight against terrorism and everything that was achieved in the two weeks of quiet was via understandings with Hamas and Islamic Jihad, which at a certain point received instructions to resume their armed operations."
Mr. Steinitz, an ally of former Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, argues that Sharon has not been tough enough on the Palestinians. "Sharon is doing well in certain respects, but Israel should occupy the Palestinian cities one by one and itself dismantle the terror infrastructure, including from Arafat's forces, and collect all the illegal weapons."