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To the brink

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It's not just the soaring body count. Both sides in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are using new tactics to inflict death on each other. Is all-out war inevitable?

Ariel Sharon loathes Yasser Arafat. If he could do it all over again, Sharon has said, he would have killed Arafat in Lebanon 20 years ago when he had the chance. And yet last week--with the number of Israelis slaughtered on his watch rising, the country sliding closer to war and its citizens sinking deeper into despair--Sharon tried to keep his enemy awake, as if Arafat were the only person in the world who could understand his troubles. Before dawn on Wednesday, Israeli Apache helicopters fired missiles into a building next to the office compound in Ramallah where Arafat has been involuntarily quarantined since December. The next day Israeli gunships blitzed the compound again, this time destroying a building used by Palestinian Authority soldiers and injuring one of Arafat's bodyguards. Sharon was not aiming to hurt Arafat. A senior aide told TIME, "We want him to think twice before he sleeps at night."

Arafat didn't risk going to bed. In public, his aides boasted that he stayed in his bunker on al-Irsal Street, defiantly working through the attacks and refusing pleas from his friends to move to another location in Ramallah. "He doesn't want to be seen running from the Israelis," a senior adviser told Time. But privately, Arafat and his cabinet took "preventive measures" to save themselves. And Arafat, the aide says, "feels depressed and nervous."

That trembling mood was shared last week by millions of traumatized Israelis and Palestinians, by neighboring Arab regimes fearful that the unrest would spread to their streets and by the increasingly isolated moderates in the Bush Administration eager to clean up the mess in the Middle East. The 17-month-old cycle of killing in Israel and the occupied territories has become a death spiral from which there seems to be no escape. More than 50 people died in a three-day exchange of suicide attacks and air strikes that left even hardened veterans of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict numb with disbelief. As it always does, escalation brought with it the perverse hope that both sides might finally be persuaded to find a way out of the madness. Late last week top Israeli and Palestinian security officials met under CIA auspices to discuss a cease-fire, and the Israeli army eased travel restrictions in the Gaza Strip. On Friday Secretary of State Colin Powell cited the security meetings and a new Saudi peace initiative as causes for mild optimism. "Both sides are still trying to find a way forward," he said.

The temporary outbreak of sanity came as the Israelis and Palestinians signaled that they are settling in for protracted combat. Attacks by Palestinian bombers on pizzerias and commuter buses are still common, but the most recent raids have targeted Israeli military installations, soldiers and police. On Tuesday gunmen from al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, a militia linked to Arafat's Fatah faction, ambushed and killed six Israeli soldiers at a West Bank checkpoint. That prompted Israeli assaults from land, air and sea against Arafat's few security buildings and police stations in the Gaza Strip and West Bank that haven't already been pulverized. After two days of bombardments, 26 Palestinians were dead. Sharon vowed he would not lead Israel into "all-out war," but many Israelis believe they are already in one. "The crisis is beginning to look chronic," says Nachman Ben-Yehuda, dean of sociology and anthropology at Hebrew University in Jerusalem. "And when people have chronic illness they adopt certain ways of thinking: despair, anger, frustration."

Sharon is feeling heat from all sides. Since returning to the public eye after a bout with the flu, the Prime Minister has come under siege by Israelis fed up with the carnage he was elected to stop. Hard-liners want him to topple Arafat and reclaim Palestinian-held land; the dovish opposition is calling for a unilateral pullout from the occupied territories and a new round of peace talks. In a national address, Sharon tried to mollify both wings by acceding to neither; he instead announced the creation of "buffer zones" to separate the Palestinian territories from Israel. But he left the idea so vague that it failed to bolster belief that he has any plan for rescuing the country from the abyss. According to a poll released last Friday, only 54% of Israelis believe Sharon is credible, down from 77% seven months ago.

Sharon's travails deepened just as Arafat showed signs of crawling out of the international doghouse. Arafat ordered the arrests of three Palestinian militants involved in last October's assassination of Israeli Tourism Minister Rehavam Zeevi, which Israel had demanded as a condition for lifting Arafat's travel restrictions. The Bush Administration maintained its criticism that Arafat is not doing more to halt terrorism, but the U.S. also toughened its rhetoric against Israel for killing civilians and attacking Palestinian security forces. "If you take away the instruments of the Palestinian Authority," a senior State Department official says, "you have chaos and violence."

There is already plenty of both. But until now the U.S. has shown little ability to do much about it. From the start the Bush Administration was divided about America's role in mediating the conflict, with Powell pushing for engagement and Dick Cheney arguing for a freer rein for Sharon. That division, presided over by an inexperienced President, resulted in paralysis. Once Bush declared a global war on terror, Arafat's failure to curb terrorist groups like Hamas and Islamic Jihad made the hard-line position unimpeachable. But partly at the prodding of nervous Arab allies, the U.S. has begun to look for ways to nudge the Israelis and Palestinians back to the negotiating table. Last week the State Department latched onto a tentative offer made by Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz al Saud for the Arabs to grant Israel a full peace if the Israelis withdraw from all territory seized in the 1967 war. An Arab diplomat says the initiative "puts Sharon in a corner...[and] it signals to the U.S. government, 'If you get engaged, there are important friends in the Arab world who will work with you.'"

Those friends know the Administration needs them for a potential showdown with Iraq. Any U.S. operation would likely require the use of bases in Saudi Arabia or an alternate Gulf state such as Qatar or Kuwait. Diplomats in the region told TIME many Arab leaders say they will not offer support to an anti-Iraq campaign while the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is boiling. Expressing skepticism about the U.S. war on terrorism in an interview with Time, Abdullah said that "America cannot fight this war alone" and that he does "not believe that the war on terrorism applies to Iran and Iraq"--but refused to say whether Saudi Arabia would support a U.S. attack on Baghdad. Translation: he might, but he's going to insist that in return America secure a settlement between Israel and the Palestinians.

Even if a peace offensive gets off the ground, the Israeli and Palestinian belligerents may not notice. In just the last month, the ferocity of the conflict has taken on new dimensions. The catalyst for the current round of hostilities was the Feb. 14 bombing of an Israeli Merkava Mark 3 tank in the central Gaza Strip, which killed three Israeli soldiers. An Israeli official told Time the bomb contained the high-density plastic explosive C-4, large amounts of which the Israelis believe are being smuggled into Gaza through tunnels running under the Egyptian border. "It's frightening to think that the next suicide bomber will have C-4 in his belt," says a senior Israeli security official. "The destruction will be far worse than anything we've seen before."

The tank bombing embodied the unpredictable nature of the threat posed by militant Palestinian groups. Responsibility for the attack was claimed by the Committees of Popular Resistance, which includes Arafat's Fatah organization as well as the terror groups Hamas and Islamic Jihad. Though it has adopted Hamas' suicide-bombing strategy, Fatah wants to improve its image from that of a bunch of terrorists attacking civilians to one of an independence movement fighting Israeli oppressors. Strikes against soldiers at checkpoints play to the Palestinian street, since those barriers are commonly seen as symbols of humiliation. And Fatah leaders think continued assaults on Israeli military targets in the occupied territories, like the ones staged last week, will ultimately turn Israeli opinion against keeping settlements in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Those hopes are still quixotic. Israeli morale has strained under the weight of endless violence--European embassies report a rise in the number of Israelis applying for passports in the past year--but outrage at Palestinian terror is boundless. Polls show that more than 40% of Israelis want the army to retake land held by the Palestinian Authority. A majority still supports Sharon's merciless campaign against Arafat and suspected Palestinian terrorists. Few Israelis see an end to the violence, and most are prepared to keep fighting. Last week Sharon tried to boost public spirits by recounting the country's achievements and resilience. In the understatement of the year, he added, "These are not easy times." They could still get a lot worse.


Cover Date: March 4, 2002


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