A smaller intifada resumes

Four Israelis were killed in a suicide bombing Wednesday.

Call it intifada without end.

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is heating up again, but the violence appears unlikely to reach the levels of 2002, when Palestinian suicide bombers sometimes killed scores of Israelis in single attacks and when the Israeli military blasted through Palestinian towns and cities with tanks, helicopters, and bulldozers.

The tactics are the same, just less intense.

Wednesday, a Palestinian woman killed herself, three Israeli soldiers, and a private security guard at the border that separates Israel from the Gaza Strip. The night before, a Palestinian attacker shot to death an Israeli settler on a West Bank road. In recent weeks, Israeli military operations in the West Bank city of Nablus has left at least eight Palestinians dead and dozens wounded, according to a UN assessment.

The renewal of strife occurs in a vacuum of any hope for a negotiated solution. "Each side thinks the leader of the other will never make peace," says Hillel Frisch, a scholar of Palestinian affairs at Bar-Ilan University outside Tel Aviv.

Noting almost daily of violence, Ghazi Hamad, the editor of a Hamas newspaper in the Gaza Strip, says "the Palestinian Authority has reached political bankruptcy, despair, and frustration after realizing that with [Israeli Prime Minister Ariel] Sharon, there will be no peace, ever."

Meanwhile, US, European, and even Israeli and Palestinian leaders reiterate their faith in a US-backed peace plan, known as the road map. But the document is mainly honored in the breach. Israel has only fitfully attempted to carry out its obligations under the plan, and the Palestinians have backed away from the political reforms the road map demands.

The intensity of the strife subsided in 2003. The Israeli government says the conflict killed 213 Israelis in 2003, down from 451 dead the previous year. Palestinians continue to die in larger numbers than Israelis, but also at a reduced rate. The Israeli human rights group B'tselem says 579 Palestinians died in the occupied territories as a result of the conflict in 2002, down from 1,003 a year earlier.

The past two months or so have been especially quiet, in part because of aggressive Israeli security measures. An Israeli year-end assessment says that the 30 percent drop in attempted attacks "stems - inter alia - from the intensive counterterrorist actions of" Israeli security forces.

But at the same time the Palestinian political leadership, in concert with Egypt, has endeavored to have militant Palestinian groups agree to a cease-fire. One such agreement broke down in mid-2003, but the parties have been discussing a new one.

These efforts seem to be coming up short. "There have been many attempts to reach a cease-fire but all have failed because the Israeli side showed no intention to calm the situation down," says Mr. Hamad, whose publication is considered a voice of the militant Islamic Resistance Group, or Hamas, which claimed partial responsibility for Wednesday's bombing.

Alongside the absence of diplomatic initiatives, the Palestinians are witnessing the construction of Israel's "security barrier," a combination of walls, fences, and barbed wire that is intended to make it difficult for Palestinians to reach Israeli targets.

But since the route of the barrier deviates markedly from the "green line," the invisible border between the West Bank and Israel proper, Palestinians consider the barrier a de facto annexation of land that should be theirs.

Mr. Frisch says the perceived territory loss is not the only aspect of the barrier that is demoralizing the Palestinians. The other is that it is making more difficult what Palestinians see as their most effective tactic: suicide attacks in the heart of Israel.

Wednesday's attack exemplifies Frisch's point: the bomber was only able to reach a border area, not a target inside Israel itself.

And where the Palestinians have long hoped to divide the Israeli political center, and thereby gain some advantage, the fence has broad support among Israelis, who see it as a solution of last resort.

"Returning to square one has always been an alternative for the Palestinians in the wake of Israel's [refusing] to engage in any political settlement," says Sami Mash'harawi, a senior official of the mainstream Fatah movement in the Gaza Strip.

All of which adds to the impression that the conflict can only continue, but perhaps not with the intensity of recent years. "I don't think the Palestinians have those capabilities any more," says Frisch. "Clearly Israel can't wipe this out, but it'll be more of the same of 2003."

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