Behind Mideast escalation

With more than 60 killings this week, strategic questions arise.

Even by the grim, repetitive standards of this intractable dispute, the events of the past few days constitute a precipitous shift toward a deeper, bloodier level of violence between Israelis and Palestinians.

Yesterday, hours after Israeli attacks killed more than a dozen Palestinians, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said his inner cabinet had approved a "different course of action" to guide Israel's approach to the conflict. But aides and analysts say Mr. Sharon will intensify his hard-nosed, militant tactics without fundamentally shifting strategy.

Palestinian Authority leader Yasser Arafat said he and his supporters remain undaunted and unafraid, despite an Israeli missile strike inside his compound in the West Bank city of Ramallah. As with the Israelis, Mr. Arafat's attitude may mean more of the same. Over the past week, Palestinian gunmen have shown themselves capable of daring attacks against the Israeli military that have stunned many Israelis.

Political realities help explain this situation. Despite increasing criticism of a strategy that seems to lack a plan, Mr. Sharon nonetheless is holding firm, in part because the makeup of his own cabinet limits his freedom of maneuver. While Foreign Minister Shimon Peres pursues efforts to restart peace talks, rightist politicians, many of them also in Sharon's "unity government," are demanding that he wage open war against the Palestinians.

Arafat, faced with an enemy that has done little to bolster his attempts to institute a cease-fire, appears to have little choice but to allow militants to persist in their attacks. The US, where involvement in the Middle East seems to offer more political risk than reward, seems inclined to remain outwardly worried but essentially aloof.

And while Israeli and Palestinian leaders profess to believe that the conflict cannot be resolved through military means, there is reason to believe otherwise.

On the Palestinian side, two recent attacks indicate a determination to raise the stakes for the Israeli military. On Feb. 14, Palestinians set off at least 100 pounds of buried explosives under an Israeli battle tank, killing three soldiers inside. Even the Iranian-backed Hizbullah militia, which fought Israeli soldiers in southern Lebanan for years, failed in its many attempts to destroy a tank in this manner.

On Tuesday night, Palestinian gunmen surprised six Israeli soldiers at a checkpoint in the West Bank, killing six of them. A militia that is part of Fatah, the Palestinian political movement founded by Arafat, claimed responsibility for both attacks, although it said the tank blast was conducted in concert with the Islamic group Hamas.

Marwan Barghouti, the Fatah leader in the West Bank, told The Associated Press yesterday that attacks such as the killing of the Israeli soldiers on Tuesday are "the only way for the Israelis to understand that they should put an end to their occupation."

These tactics lend credence to the idea that some Palestinians believe that unremitting violence will gradually weaken Israeli resolve and force a withdrawal from Palestinian territories. Here again, Hizbullah is the inspiration. Most Palestinians think - and few Israelis would deny - that the militia's relentless attacks resulted in the Israeli pull-out from Lebanon in 2000.

There is no doubt that Israeli soldiers are increasingly vulnerable. Of the 17 Israelis who were killed in conflict in the past week, 13 have been soldiers.

This toll has prompted vociferous criticism of Sharon in the Israeli media, generally on the theme that he lacks a vision for where the conflict is going. Perhaps more significant to the Palestinians, however, is the growing dissent from other quarters: 270 Israeli military reservists have signed a letter refusing to serve in the territories on moral grounds. A prestigious, if somewhat dovish, group of former military and intelligence officers has said it will begin a campaign advocating Israel's unilateral withdrawal from much of the Gaza Strip and West Bank.

Sharon, however, appears undeterred from a course of action that seems to include little more than using force to dissuade the Palestinians from using force. Avraham Diskin, a political science professor at Hebrew University, sums up the prime minister's approach to the Palestinians this way: "If they're OK, you have to be OK; if not, you have to beat them as hard as you can."

Few observers would dispute Sharon's loyalty to the second principle, but his willingness to abide by the first is open to interpretation. On Jan. 14 Israel assassinated a Palestinian militant named Raed al-Karmi in the West Bank town of Tulkarem, an event that is widely considered to have derailed a cease-fire that Arafat joined in earnest in mid-December.

Mark Heller, of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies in Tel Aviv, says he understands that opportunities for Israel's security forces to hit a known militant such as Karmi are scarce. But in this case and in retrospect, he adds, "they could have considered holding off for a while."

The Karmi assassination is seen as Exhibit A in the argument that Sharon has done too little to support the steps that Arafat has taken to calm the situation in accordance with Israeli and US demands. Sharon has instead insisted that Israel would not negotiate under fire and that a week of absolute quiet had to precede any Israeli actions to shore up a ceasefire. Palestinians, Israeli leftists, and many diplomats have argued for months that Arafat cannot sustain a cease-fire without Israeli help: mainly an end to assassinations of Palestinian militants and an easing of the Israeli military presence in the Palestinian territories. Such steps would have angered the prime minister's rightist supporters, who constitute the bulk of his backing.

Although Sharon is unlikely to change course significantly, says Mr. Diskin, it is too much to say the prime minister has no plan, arguing that he recognizes that he must preserve Israel's security and its predominately Jewish demography. It is an accepted truth that achieving those ends means withdrawing from the Palestinian territories - eventually. "You cannot withdraw and do it in a way that proves to the other side that attrition was successful," Diskin says, reiterating a common Israeli criticism of the Lebanon pull-out.

An aversion to the appearance of weakness may account for Israel's reaction to the killing of the six soldiers: raids and strikes that killed at least 15 Palestinians, including 12 policemen, two gunmen, and a civilian, at press time yesterday.

These reprisals capped a bloody seven days. In addition to the 17 Israelis killed during the period, The Associated Press says 45 Palestinians died as a result of the conflict, including nine civilians. Since the conflict began in September 2000, more than 1,200 people have been killed, some three-quarters of them Palestinian.

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