In the long run, Sgt. Ron Tiv conceded, sitting atop an armored personnel carrier (APC) outside the Jenin refugee camp, what Israel was doing inside probably wouldn't make much difference.
"You know why?" he asked. "Because tomorrow someone is going to wake up and say, 'Today, I'm going to blow up a bus and I don't care how many people are on it."
Israel's occupation of the camp has emerged as the signal event of a set of incursions into Palestinian areas that began March 29. The largest Israeli military action in 20 years, the operation is intended to arrest or kill Palestinian militants and seize their weapons.
But as Sergeant Tiv's comment suggests, there is an element of futility about it all. The comments of Palestinians suggest something worse: that Israel's resort to near-war will only deepen a conflict that has killed more than 1,700 people in a year and a half.
Tamam Raja, a mother of 10 and a resident of the Jenin camp, spent last Tuesday night cowering under a blanket, counting 36 missiles and 18 shells as they exploded around her house. After a missile hit next door, she says, she listened to her son-in-law Yahya Zubeid cry for help until he died.
Interviewed in a village just outside Jenin on Friday, she said the future would bring more strife, not negotiations. "We do not want to talk never, never, never," she vowed, manifesting the stress of her recent experiences with a mixture of tears and rage. "We thought once upon a time that we would make friends with [the Israelis], now that's impossible. They have taken our children away dead on the backs of trucks. They have let dogs eat the bodies of our children."
Israel says it is destroying the "infrastructure of terror," but a suicide bombing in Jerusalem on Friday, in which six Israelis and the bomber died, may be an indication that such attacks do not require much infrastructure.
Meanwhile, other types of infrastructure have at least been severely damaged, if not destroyed. In the town of Jenin, for instance, residents are coping without electricity, running water, or transportation, since Israeli troops are only gradually letting up on the round-the-clock curfews they have imposed for two weeks.
In the course of entering nearly all the cities of the West Bank and scores of villages, Israeli troops have demolished countless structures, including many used by the Palestinian Authority (PA), the perhaps stillborn government established under the peace agreements of the 1990s.
The human toll remains hard to measure. Israel estimates that 200 Palestinians have died in the operation; Palestinian officials say the number is much higher. Twenty-three Israeli soldiers have been killed.
The attack on the Jenin camp, which has produced many of the suicide bombers who have struck Israel, has begun to take on iconic status. Palestinians assert a massacre has taken place, which Israeli officials deny.
Most of the camp's residents are now in Jenin and surrounding villages, and they relate stories of Israeli bulldozers tearing down buildings on top of people's heads, of Israeli forces attacking indiscriminately, and of Israelis burying undetermined numbers of Palestinian dead en masse.
These accounts may be exaggerated, but there is no denying that the 13,000 residents of the camp have traded a humble existence for a desperate one. In what was previously an institution for deaf and mute people in Jenin, hundreds of camp residents are sleeping on the floor and eating donated food. A lone doctor, in charge of the center, attends to the needs of nearly 1,000 people whose final days in the camp were marked by intense fear and physical deprivation.
Independent assessments of the events in the camp and other places have been impossible, since Israel has barred aid workers and journalists from many areas in the West Bank.
Israeli officials said yesterday they would lift these restrictions for all areas except around PA President Yasser Arafat's headquarters in Ramallah, Jenin, and the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, where Israeli troops and Palestinian gunmen remain in a standoff. The Israel Defense Forces also escorted a small group of reporters into the Jenin camp yesterday.
Secretary of State Colin Powell is in the region to press for a cease-fire and to request that the Israelis pull out of Palestinian areas, but IDF chief spokesman Brig. Gen. Ron Kitrey told Israel's Army Radio yesterday that the mission to "uproot terror" would continue. "I suppose it would be naive to assume it is possible to eliminate it completely," he added, "but we can reduce its dimensions to a very great extent."
Israeli officials say they have killed or arrested numerous Palestinians responsible for attacks on Israelis and have displayed caches of small arms discovered during their incursions.
Sitting on the APC with Tiv, a soldier who gave his name as Sgt. Guy was less enthusiastic than the IDF spokesman. "You don't have to be a scientist," he said, "to know that you have to act politically as well as militarily."