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Friday, 1 June, 2001, 21:47 GMT 22:47 UK
Analysis: Sharon under pressure
Israeli settlers protesting outside Ariel Sharon's office
Israel's settlers are urging Mr Sharon to attack the Palestinians now
By Paul Wood in Jerusalem

Israelis were riveted this week by the spectacle of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon being berated by furious relatives of a Jewish settler shot dead on the West Bank - as pressure mounts on his government to abandon its unilateral cease-fire.

Start the war, we cannot live like this any longer

Israeli demonstrator
"How many, how many bodies?," one of the relatives shouted. "We can't wait for the right timing at the expense of our blood. Ariel, how many more bodies can you bear on your shoulders... if it were your son or grandson, you would have long since bombed Gaza."

The emotionally charged encounter was with the bereaved family of Gilad Zar, the most prominent of four Jewish settlers killed in recent days.

They told Mr Sharon it was time for the Israeli security forces to end their ceasefire and hit Palestinian targets with a vengeance.

They were not placated by Mr Sharon's soft-spoken insistence that his blood, too, was boiling.

Ariel Sharon
Once the settlers champion, Sharon is now under pressure

Instead, the angry mourners told the prime minister to "do the job" and wage war on the Palestinians.

The depth and ferocity of their feelings were laid bare for the Israeli public as Channel Two news showed the entire six and a half minutes of the fraught exchange.

The settlers are in the frontline of the conflict, vulnerable to the newly revived Palestinian tactic of drive by shootings as they go to and from their fortified homes in occupied territory.

But the Jewish public in Israel proper are also feeling increasingly under siege following a string of car-bombs and suicide attacks, with the latest blast in Tel Aviv on Friday evening increasing the pressure one notch further.

Angry crowds

After two such attacks in the centre of Jerusalem last weekend, groups of Israelis gathered on the streets abusing passing government officials, and the police, for failing to act.

"The Arabs want to kill us, anyhow, anywhere, anytime," said one man, shouting, as were most others there voicing an opinion.

Sharon has decided to behave like Shimon Peres, perhaps even better than Peres. But deep down, under the mask, Sharon remains Sharon

Maariv, Israeli newspaper

I asked one demonstrator what Prime Minister Sharon should do.

"Start the war, we cannot live like this any longer," he said without hesitation.

Every day, there are more such calls for the Israeli Government to abandon its self-described policy of military restraint.

An opinion poll for Israel's largest daily newspaper, Yedioth Ahronoth, on Friday found that just over half of Israelis want to call off the ceasefire announced on 22 May.

The Palestinians dispute that there is a ceasefire at all, accusing the Israelis of numerous violations, including the use of tanks in Gaza.

Mr Sharon was elected on a promise of security. He is the Israeli politician who, more than any other, is associated with the settlers' cause.

Increasing pressure

Now the settlers' champion is himself increasingly under fire from traditional right-wing supporters.

In the light of this, there are continual signals from Israeli ministers that the ceasefire will not last forever.

Yet it has handed Israel a major propaganda victory, putting the Palestinians on the defensive in the court of world opinion.

Israeli newspapers are therefore predicting that Mr Sharon will use the ceasefire during a three-day visit to Germany, France and Belgium next week, as a means to help him to make the case in Europe that Yasser Arafat is solely to blame for the violence.

Soldiers examine the car of a shot Jewish settler
Palestinians have resumed drive by shootings

Mr Sharon alluded to this apparent strategy when he again rebuffed calls for a return to military action, calling on Israelis to be patient.

"The present campaign is not just military, and Israel must contend with and successfully manage a complex, complicated diplomatic campaign," he said.

One theory, put forward by the left in Israel, is that the ceasefire is nothing more than a public relations exercise and that the F-16 raids which brought such international condemnation, and other actions by the Israeli Defence Forces, are all part of a bigger plan.

Mr Sharon, the theory goes, is intent on crushing the Palestinian Authority, toppling Yasser Arafat and destroying as much of the Palestinians' military capability as possible.

An alternative Palestinian leadership would then be helped into being, one which agrees to Israel's terms and conditions and is willing to live side-by-side with the settlers.

Weak leaders

Another theory - and one underwritten by the conclusions of Mitchell Commission report - is that the leaderships on both sides are too weak to make peace, held captive by domestic political pressures, not ready to take the chances needed to break the cycle of violence.

Yasser Arafat
Arafat has been unable to halt the violence so far

Yasser Arafat cannot call a halt to the uprising which has seen almost 500 Palestinians killed without being able to point to some political sacrifice by Israel.

Mr Sharon and his most important political ally, the dovish Foreign Minister Shimon Peres, cannot order a freeze on all settlement activity without sinking their fractious coalition government.

Speculating about how long the ceasefire can last, a columnist in the leading Israeli newspaper Maariv wrote on Friday: "Sharon has decided to behave like Shimon Peres, perhaps even better than Peres. But deep down, under the mask, Sharon remains Sharon."

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