Protected by an armored truck and a score of watchful Israeli soldiers, Lt. Col. Chaem Livani, laden with combat gear, stood on an eerily still avenue in the Balata refugee camp and reflected on the goals of his mission: stopping Palestinian suicide bombers and missile attacks and "trying to keep the violence down."
During their three days in Balata and two days in another West Bank camp, the Israelis said they seized numerous caches of weapons and arrested two dozen suspected militants. They also killed some 35 Palestinians, mostly combatants, and including one young girl, while the Palestinians killed two Israeli soldiers.
"I know it's fighting fire with fire," Colonel Livani added, a weak smile accentuating the worry on his face.
Less than a day after the Israeli battalion commander uttered those words on Saturday afternoon, the fire had flared anew: a Palestinian suicide bomber had killed nine Israelis, including several children; a Palestinian sniper had attacked an Israeli military checkpoint, killing seven soldiers and three civilians; and other Palestinian militants had killed another soldier. The toll: 20 Israelis dead in 20 hours.
Claiming responsibility for the suicide-bomber and sniper attacks, two Palestinian militia groups said the provocation was Israel's incursions into the Balata and Jenin camps.
This circle of tragedy demonstrates once again that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict continues to worsen. And this downward trend raises new uncertainty about Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's political future.
At no time during his year in office has Mr. Sharon been pulled more tightly between the two sides of his "unity government." One camp wants to crush the Palestinians with greater intensity than Sharon has so far employed; the other wants to return to negotiations, which the premier has ruled out so long as violence persists. Moving decisively in either direction risks destabilizing the government and bringing on elections.
Sharon's ability to placate both sides has been the key to his success, but now the Israeli public is starting to show its frustration. In a poll published Friday, 53 percent of the respondents said they were dissatisfied with Mr. Sharon's overall performance. Seventy-three percent said he had not fulfilled his campaign promises.
"Sharon may still try to muddle through, to cope," says Bar-Ilan University political scientist Shmuel Sandler. The other option is "to make a hard decision."
Sharon's political prospects "are very doubtful," adds Shlomo Brom, a former Israeli general who works at a research institute in Tel Aviv. "He is between the hammer and the anvil."
Sharon could side with his foreign minister, Shimon Peres, for whom 17 months of violence have been no impediment to the search for a negotiated solution with the Palestinians. But backing away from militant confrontation likely would mean that right-wing members of the Cabinet would defect immediately. Many members of Sharon's right-wing Likud bloc might support a move for new elections.
Israeli analysts agree that Sharon's nearest rival is former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who favors a harder, more militaristic approach toward the Palestinians. The Friday poll, which appeared in the Ma'ariv newspaper, indicated that 52 percent of conservative respondents favored Netanyahu to lead Likud in the next elections, as opposed to 25 percent for Sharon.
This political calculus indicates to some observers that Sharon will move rightward. "The public has been reacting to his inaction - military or diplomatic - more than anything else; they have not expressed a clear desire for one or the other," says Wayne Firestone, the Jerusalem director of the Anti-Defamation League. "Given the wave of provocations, I would not be surprised if he chooses the military route, very soon."
In Jerusalem's Beit Yisrael neighborhood, about an hour after a suicide bomber struck Saturday evening, some bystanders began to chant slogans against Mr. Peres. But of the current government, said one yeshiva student who declined to give his name, "They're doing everything they can."
While the political temptations for Sharon to ratchet up Israel's military engagement with the Palestinians may be clear, there is no guarantee that such an approach will work. Mr. Brom, the former general, says Sharon's situation is "a problem of strategy, and the strategy is a failure." By refusing to negotiate until calm is achieved, by escalating the severity of Israel's reprisals, and by not putting forward a vision for a political settlement, Brom says, Sharon has driven himself into an impasse.
Sharon's latest tactical innovation, invading and temporarily occupying Palestinian refugee camps in order to destroy what the Israelis call the "infrastructure of terror," seems to have yielded limited gains and a bitter backlash.
The commander of the Israeli incursion into the Jenin camp, Col. Moshe Tamir, called the mission a success because "a lot of terrorists were killed" and more than a dozen were captured. But he shirked any suggestion that Israel's problems in the area were solved. "In this kind of war, there's no wiping out anything," he said. "For the time being we have made things more difficult for terror organizations in the Jenin area."
The Balata mission commander, Col. Aviv Kochavi, similarly indicated that the gains might be short-lived. "I wouldn't be surprised if we have to get into that place once again," he said, referring to Balata.
The two commanders estimated the number of Palestinian dead at 35, with Colonel Tamir saying he was aware of no civilian deaths and Colonel Kochavi saying he would not make the same statement "in regard to Balata." Palestinian officials said one girl, whose age was variously reported as 9 or 10, was killed at the Jenin camp. They put the total Palestinians dead at 23.
The al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, a militia allied with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's Fatah faction, and the military wing of the Islamic Jihad organization used the camp incursions to justify the deadly attacks Saturday night and yesterday. By yesterday afternoon, Israeli forces had begun retaliatory strikes.