Israel assesses the damage

Defensive Shield has met many targets, but some say it will simply ricochet into more violence.

As the West Bank continues to smolder, Israeli authorities are assessing their military operation there, amid continued international condemnation.

While Israel has issued official televised apologies here for the deaths of innocent civilians – it maintains that its incursion into the Palestinian territories was justified. Within days, says Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, the mission will be complete, its goals met.

Launched March 29 in response to a spate of brutal suicide bombings in Israeli cities, Operation Defensive Shield was primarily targeted, officials have said, at eradicating terrorist infrastructure by arresting those suspected of involvement in terror operations, and hitting their bases. In addition, Israeli officials acknowledge, the idea was to show the Palestinians that not only does Israel have the military might to fight back against terror – it also has the political will to do so.

"We have a right to self-defense, and no one has a right to condemn us because we want to defend our citizens," says Israeli President Moshe Katzav. Since the start of the second Intifada in September 2000, 470 Israelis have been killed in terror attacks. Up to three times as many Palestinians are estimated to have been killed in the same time period.

The number of Palestinian civilians fatalities during Defensive Shield is hotly debated, ranging from Israeli estimates of dozens to as many as 100, to Palestinian figures of up to 500 in the incursion into the Jenin refugee camp alone.

In the course of the offensive, Israel has arrested 5,600 Palestinians, of whom, say security sources, at least 387 were previously known terror suspects on Most Wanted lists. Some detainees have been released, and, the sources say, by next week only some 1,200 suspects will remain in custody.

High-profile detainees include Nasser Awais of the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade; Thabet Mardawi, an Islamic Jihad leader; Sheikh Ali Safuri of Islamic Jihad; Jamal Akhuil of Fatah; and Bilal Barghouti of Hamas. Between them, these five men are accused of arming and dispatching suicide bombers responsible for more than 40 deaths.

The biggest fish caught during the campaign is undoubtedly Marwan Barghouti, a senior activist in Palestinian Authority (PA) Chairman Yasser Arafat's Fatah movement who Israel claims also commands the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades. Israel says Barghouti was directly involved in two deadly suicide bombings, a June attack on a Tel Aviv disco and an August blast outside a Jerusalem pizza parlor – and has encouraged scores of others.

Barghouti, once considered to be a possible moderate alternative to Arafat and feted by the Israelis, denies the allegations against him, saying he is a political and not a military leader. He is being interrogated in Jerusalem and reportedly has not been cooperating with the police.

Alongside the arrests, the Israeli army has also been flattening the "infrastructure of terror" within the West Bank. Every day, the army reports its findings of the previous day: Bomb factories hidden in innocent-looking apartments, laboratories snuggled behind shoe or food stores, caches of ammunition in school buildings.

Another significant finding, say officials, are documents that they say prove a direct link between terror operations and Arafat.

One such document, released last week, bears what appears to be Arafat's handwritten authorization to provide $300 to a man named Atef Abayat, an Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades leader in Bethlehem who was on Israel's Most Wanted list. The document is dated July 9. In September, the Israelis say, Abayat killed an Israeli citizen in Bethlehem. In October he himself was killed when a car bomb exploded prematurely in his jeep. Although Jerusalem deputy Police Commander Ilan Franco says there are hundreds of such incriminating documents, few have been released to the public.

The PA says that the documents are fake – and that Sharon is trying to undermine and delegitimize Arafat.

Not everyone agrees that Defensive Shield has been a success. Many within and outside Israel believe that, by destroying the Education Ministry, the Statistics Bureau, the police compounds and other such Palestinian institutions, Israel has created a situation that would make it hard for the PA to fight combat the terror groups even if it wanted to.

Critics say the ruin leveled at the Palestinians, and the personal grief caused millions of Palestinian civilians, many of whom have been under curfew for more than two weeks and have seen family and friends arrested or killed, will only strengthen the motivation to lash back.

Each escalation of violence fuels the next, says Yossi Beilin, a left-wing member of Israel's Parliament. "This battle against the terrorist infrastructure will give birth to more terrorists because the terrorist infrastructure lies within people s hearts," he says. "It can be uprooted only if there is hope for a different kind of life – not by force."

Barghouti's son, for example, in an interview with the Saudi paper Al Shark al Awsat said Tuesday that if his father were harmed, he would personally carry out a suicide attack on Israel.

Even head of military intelligence Maj. Gen. Aharon "Farkash" Ze'evi candidly said this week that it might take as little as six weeks for the terrorist infrastructure to be rebuilt once troops leave the West Bank.

Israel has suffered a blow to its political image, with massive condemnations of its behavior coming from the international community. Charges that a massacre took place in Jenin have rallied the Arab world in particular against Israel. Israel denies any massacre took place and says an investigation will be launched.

Twenty-three thousand reservists were called up for Defensive Shield. Defense Minister Binyamin Ben Eliezer says many of these will soon be released from duty, and the military will pull out of all West Bank towns – save Bethlehem and Ramallah – by next week.

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