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Friday, 18 May, 2001, 20:07 GMT 21:07 UK
Sharon's tactics
The aftermath of a suicide bomber's powerful explosion at a shopping centre in Netanya
Israeli medics carry away the body of a Netanya bombing victim
By Middle East analyst Paul Adams

When Israelis voted for Ariel Sharon earlier this year - only about 33% of them, but enough to unseat the unpopular Ehud Barak - many of them were looking for a military solution to the growing problem of the Palestinian uprising.

A full-fledged feud.... a backward-looking conflict

Israeli academic Avishai Margalit
A robust, gloves-off response to months of violence which had left them feeling insecure and vengeful.

More than three months later, the Palestinian uprising still rages. Recent events have suggested that, if anything, the conflict is continuing to spin further and further out of control.

The latest suicide bomb is the most deadly attack of its kind for several years. And, for the first time, Israel has used warplanes to launch air strikes against Palestinian cities.

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon
Mr Sharon has conspicuously failed to make Israelis feel safer

Israeli academic Avishai Margalit says the conflict is now "a full-fledged feud ... a backward-looking conflict."

In Israel's parliament, the Knesset, frustrated politicians are still looking for answers.

Appearing before the Knesset's Foreign Affairs and Defence Committee, Israel's Chief of Staff, Lt Gen Shaul Mofaz, was asked if he thought there was a military solution to the intifada. He declined to answer.

At a cabinet meeting two days earlier, Mr Mofaz said his goal was to send stronger signals to Yasser Arafat's Palestinian Authority, not to bring about its collapse.

But repeated attacks on PA personnel, facilities and equipment have caused some to wonder if Mr Sharon and his defence minister, the hawkish Labour party member Binyamin Ben-Eliezer, are not harbouring a secret agenda: to remove Yasser Arafat and his apparatus for good.

Israeli Defence Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer
Mr Ben-Eliezer admitted giving his commanders carte blanche

Comments from senior army officers suggesting that the PA be branded formally as an "enemy", allowing Israel to respond accordingly, merely serve to reinforce this suspicion.

Speaking in New York, the Israeli Public Security Minister, Uzi Landau, warned that Israel might resort to "all out" combat to end the conflict.

Mr Ben-Eliezer admitted recently that he had given his commanders carte blanche to launch incursions into Palestinian-controlled territory.

Israel has a deep-seated fear of low level conflict. It may have won all its conventional wars, but it has lost all its wars of attrition, most recently in southern Lebanon

In many ways, there is nothing that Mr Mofaz, Mr Sharon and Mr Ben-Eliezer would like better.

Israel has a deep-seated fear of low-level conflict. It may have won all its conventional wars, but it has lost all of its wars of attrition, most recently in southern Lebanon.

Mr Margalit, the academic, suggests that this fear "is one of the reasons Israel's military leaders are behaving very harshly toward the Palestinian population".

US involvement

But Mr Sharon's hands are, to a certain extent, tied by political and diplomatic constraints. Washington is unhappy with his more bellicose behaviour.

When Israeli tanks entered Palestinian-controlled territory in the Gaza Strip in April, US Secretary of State Colin Powell called the incursion "excessive and disproportionate". The tanks were quick to move out again.

The Europeans used the same language, which will have worried Israel rather less.

Sharon's fear

More importantly, Mr Sharon has to keep his disparate coalition together. Decisive action, towards peace or war, could well bring it down.

The prime minister could easily suffer the same fate as his predecessor, Mr Barak. Israel's most popular politician, Binyamin Netanyahu, is waiting in the wings for just such an eventuality.

There is little that Mr Sharon is doing now that Mr Barak did not try last year

The conflict that erupted in September last year has undoubtedly evolved from stone-throwing and rubber-coated bullets to live rounds and missiles.

But there is little that Mr Sharon is doing now that Mr Barak did not try last year.

Apart from periodic incursions into Palestinian-controlled territory, and the use of F-16s in the latest air raids, the only difference is the frequency with which Israeli forces launch their strikes.

Which suggests that despite his election promises, Mr Sharon has looked into his cupboard of new ideas and found it empty.

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