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Thursday, 9 November, 2000, 20:32 GMT
Israel's tactical questions
Israeli soldiers run for cover
Israeli tactics arevmainly concerned with reducing army casualties
By Nick Childs and Jonathan Marcus

Throughout this burgeoning crisis, Israel's political and military leaders have consistently warned that they would "know how to respond" to a continuing confrontation.

But it is not clear whether, even in its own terms, the Israeli army has yet found the answer.

Confrontation in Gaza
It is an extremely uneven contest between the army and Palestinians
The killing of Israeli soldiers by Palestinians has so far been met by helicopter attacks, largely against symbolic, but generally unoccupied buildings.

But the 9 November gunship attack against a vehicle carrying a prominent member of the Tanzim militia belonging to Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's Fatah faction was clearly intended by the Israelis as a warning signal.

The Israeli Army has been eager to try to restore some deterrent element in its operations: A clear linkage between Palestinian gunfire and rapid and decisive Israeli retaliation.

That message has been sent. But it is far from clear that it will be received by the Palestinians in the way the Israelis hope.

The Tanzim militia has been in the forefront of the current uprising, there is a danger that this latest could provoke a new cycle of violence.

Israeli disquiet

This is one approach...
Israeli protestations that airstrikes have been used in a selective way and to minimise unnecessary civilian casualties have carried very little weight in the outside world, where the images have been of overwhelming Israeli firepower being used, often in a heavy-handed and callous way.

But while Israel has been widely censured in the international community for using excessive force against the Palestinians, there has been equally widespread disquiet among Israelis that the military has appeared weak and ineffective in the face of this form of hostilities.

In Israel, the focus has been on incidents like the army's failure to recover an injured serviceman in an early clash, the abandonment of Joseph's tomb, and the difficulties the army encountered in extracting Jewish settlers after a firefight erupted on Mount Eval which overlooks the tomb.

Israeli helicopter air strike
... But this is how Israel responds to army losses
The Israeli army said in October it would initiate more operations, rather than simply being responsive - although many would question the notion that the Israelis have only been reactive so far.

Israel suggested it could target leaders of militia groups who, the Israelis insist, are the real threat they face.

That appears to be what they have done in the assassination of local Tanzim leader Hussien Abayat.

The Palestinians have also raised the spectre of Israeli undercover hit-squads, although the Israeli military has refused to give details of all the options it is considering.

Invincible image

Each time the Israeli army has ratcheted up its military response, it has declared that its actions have been meant as a warning to deter future Palestinian violence.

But it does not seem to have worked, raising new concerns in Israeli opinion that the previous image of invincibility of the Israeli army, and its ability to deter attacks, has been fatally damaged.

Bombed Fatah building in Ramallah
The international community has frowned on Israeli airstrikes
It is a mood of unease which has taken hold since the Israeli army's ignominious pullout from southern Lebanon earlier this year.

The deputy defence minister, Ephraim Sneh, said, if the Palestinians were intent on conducting guerrilla warfare, Israel "has the answers".

The Palestinian leadership's response has been to accuse the Israelis of a dangerous escalation, and to issue a new appeal to the international community for help.

Rules of engagement

The army insists it follows strict rules of engagement, particularly over the use of live ammunition.

Palestinian gunman during seige of Joseph's Tomb in Nablus
The loss of Joseph's Tomb in Nablus upset many Israelis
But as the confrontation has unfolded and the death toll among unarmed Palestinian stone-thowers has spiralled, the evidence suggests that these rules are often not being put into practice.

Perhaps more significantly there are now even doubts being raised within the Israeli military itself about whether they are appropriate.

It is reported that the army has been re-examining its rules of engagement.

But projecting an image of strength and deterrence, while minimising unwanted casualties, is a difficult balancing act to perform.

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