In word and deed, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is fighting harder against the Palestinians, but without adopting the strategy of all-out war that some of his supporters advocate.
It would be hard to convince many Palestinians that the Israeli leader is showing much restraint, but it bears remembering what he is not doing: mounting a wholesale invasion of Palestinian territories, dismantling the Palestinian Authority, or depriving the Palestinian population en masse of food, water, or fuel.
Mr. Sharon seems determined to try to finesse the internal divisions of his coalition government, partly to keep alive the impression of Israeli unity and partly to ensure his political future.
Alongside these political calculations, the conflict is reaching grave proportions. More than 85 people have been killed in the past week. Combatants and civilians, including children, have died on both sides. "What is clear," says Rene Kosirnik, the director of International Committee of the Red Cross operations in Is- rael and the Palestinian territories, "is that the violence, the tension, the military means, the security measures are ... increasing rather than decreasing."
Palestinian militants, inflamed by Israel's incursion into two West Bank refugee camps late last week, mounted several deadly attacks against Israelis on Saturday and Sunday, prompting Sharon to ratchet up his rhetoric and his tactics.
"Now they have to be hit," Sharon told reporters Monday, referring to the Palestinians. "If they aren't badly beaten, there won't be any negotiations." He also told the Israeli parliament: "It's us or them. Our backs are to the wall, but all is not lost. We will win, but this is war, and it will take a long time."
The same day Sharon's government approved "continuous" operations against Palestinians, yielding a series of air strikes, raids, and incursions that killed at least 16 Palestinians. In one instance, the Israel Defense Forces expressed regret for the killing of six civilians in the West Bank city of Ramallah, explaining that the Israeli tank in question was targeting a pair of Palestinian policemen and missed. Early Tuesday, a Palestinian gunman killed three people at a late-night restaurant in Tel Aviv, Palestinian attackers shot dead an Israeli woman driving in the West Bank, and a Palestinian suicide bomber killed himself and an Israeli in the city of Afula.
Also Tuesday, a bomb exploded at a Palestinian elementary school in East Jerusalem, lightly injuring eight children and an adult. A group calling itself "The Avengers of the Infants" claimed responsibility for the blast.
Sharon met with selected cabinet ministers for much of Tuesday, but analysts say the prime minister is not engineering any radical shifts of policy and strategy. "I don't think he's decisively done anything," says strategic analyst Mark Heller.
Sharon is balancing between the hawks in his Cabinet, who routinely voice once-unthinkable policies such as "transferring" Palestinians to Jordan, and the dovish inclinations of other politicians, including Foreign Minister Shimon Peres, who has been pushing the prime minister to take steps toward a negotiated settlement.
The increase in Israeli military activity is prompting some members of Mr. Peres's Labor Party to call for him and other party members to abandon the government, but that is something Sharon will work to avoid. "Sharon wants Labor and Peres in his government," says Mr. Heller, a principal research associate at the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies in Tel Aviv, "because it gives him a kind of umbrella, not just domestically but also internationally."
The steady Palestinian attacks also serve to reinforce Sharon's position, since Israelis, for the most part, suppport tough tactics in the face of adversity. "It's not part of the Israeli or Jewish ethos, especially since the Holocaust, not to respond strongly to these kinds of attacks," says political scientist Gerald Steinberg of Bar-Ilan University.
The pace and ferocity of Palestinian reprisals yesterday suggest that Sharon's increasingly tough tactics are exacerbating the conflict at this time. People on both sides say their society is the one better able to endure adversity and prevail in a war of attrition.
Khader Kanawati, a gray-haired patriarch of a venerable Bethlehem family, witnessed on Monday night the might of the Israeli military. As he stood in the doorway of his house, a missile from an Israeli F-16 struck the building across the street, momentarily deafening him and filling the air with the smell of explosives.
The structure was part of the Palestinian Authority compound in Bethlehem. Israel has repeatedly struck facilities associated with Palestinian security services, whose soldiers and officers have engaged in attacks against Israelis.
So the compound was virtually empty Monday night, meaning that the casualties were limited to eight minor injuries.
But after the missile hit, Mr. Kanawati, his house suddenly dark and his family members beginning to panic, had no idea how the night would end. He and a dozen or so relatives huddled in the kitchen until a second missile slammed into the PA compound. Then they moved to a stairwell and endured two more missile strikes.
The blasts stripped all the leaves off the lemon trees in front of his house, crumpled the satellite dish on his roof, and plastered his living room with shattered glass.
"Sharon has no conscience, he just likes warfare," Mr. Kanawati said yesterday. "Sharon should come to his senses and realize that we are people who aspire to live like people everywhere. We have no army, no tanks, no airplanes. We just want our freedom."