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Thursday, 21 February, 2002, 13:06 GMT
Testing time for Sharon
Israeli soldiers carrying coffin of colleague
Recent army losses have weakened Mr Sharon
As Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon prepares an important speech to the nation, the debate about whether he can deliver peace and security is growing louder. The BBC's James Reynolds reports from Jerusalem.

This has become a testing time - a proving time - for Israel's prime minister.

Ariel Sharon came to power a year ago promising to bring security through military strength.

But so far he has not managed it.

On Tuesday night, six soldiers were killed in an ambush outside the West Bank town of Ramallah - the biggest single loss of life for the Israeli army since the Palestinian intifada began 17 months ago.

We have to fight back and then we'll have a chance for peace

Benny Alon, Israel's Tourism Minister
The army's recent losses have weakened faith in Mr Sharon's abilities.

Hardliners within his government believe that his current tactics are just not working. They think he has not gone far enough.

Benny Alon, Israel's Tourism Minister, said: "The Israeli army has suffered very heavy losses. Is it clear that Ariel Sharon's policies are not working? ... My answer cannot be as clear as your question.

"We have to sit down and change the tactic as well as the strategy. We have to fight back and then we'll have a chance for peace."

But Ariel Sharon has been fighting.

Poster asking: When will Sharon gaurd us?
Hardline critics say Mr Sharon has not gone far enough
For months now, attack after attack has been launched against suspected militants and against symbols of Yasser Arafat's Palestinian Authority.

But the more he strikes, the more Palestinian militants have struck back.

They are now developing new tactics which have unsettled Israelis.

They have started carrying out complex ambushes. And they have concentrated their actions within Palestinian lands, against Israeli soldiers and settlers.

The thing about this conflict is that everyone thinks he or she is right

Their guerrilla tactics bring back bad memories for Israelis of the country's long war in Lebanon, a war which in the end Israel could not win.

As a result, those calling for a withdrawal from the West Bank and Gaza are beginning to find their voices again.

Last Saturday, thousands of peace campaigners turned out in Tel Aviv - the largest peace rally for some time.

A group of army reservists has also attracted widespread publicity by saying they will no longer serve in the West Bank and Gaza.

Damaged car
There has been attack and counter-attack
And at the start of this week, an influential group of policy makers, the Council for Peace & Security, announced that they now supported the idea of a unilateral withdrawal from most Palestinian territories.

Reuven Merhav, spokesman for the council, said: "The most important thing is that, by doing so, we shall inject a new hope into the Palestinian people who, along with us on the other side of the fence, have undergone terrible experiences."

But the thing about this conflict is that everyone thinks he or she is right.

No one more so than Ariel Sharon. He has announced that he will now intensify military strikes against Palestinian targets.

Today, he is delivering an address to the nation. It will be his chance to persuade the country he is still the man who can bring them peace and quiet.

See also:

20 Feb 02 | Middle East
Dissent in the ranks
18 Feb 02 | Middle East
Israel reservists back occupation end
25 Jan 02 | Middle East
Yasser Arafat's dilemma
16 Feb 02 | Middle East
Israel's history of bomb blasts
02 Dec 01 | profiles
Who are the suicide bombers?
15 Feb 02 | From Our Own Correspondent
Arafat: Down but not out
20 Feb 02 | Middle East
Fear and pride in Ramallah
20 Feb 02 | Middle East
Palestinian militants 'change tactics'
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