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Thursday, 25 April, 2002, 17:20 GMT 18:20 UK
Israel's tactics become clearer
Tank crushes car in Bethlelem
The operation was Israel's biggest for years
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By Martin Asser
BBC News Online
Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said on 21 April that the current stage of his Operation Defensive Shield had ended, but the campaign to root out "terrorist infrastructure" from the Palestinian territories would continue.

The past few days have given a clue to what the next stage will be like - a return to targeted killings (aka assassinations) of Palestinian militants and lightning raids on their suspected hideouts.

Israeli soldiers rest during Operation Defensive Shield
The army remains in place around Palestinian towns
But these will take place in a different environment to when Mr Sharon launched his massive offensive on 29 March, amid Israeli outrage at a suicide bomb that killed more than two dozen people at a Passover meal.

Primarily, by plunging back into almost every Palestinian-ruled area in the West Bank, the Israeli military claims to have come close to eradicating - through arrests or deadly attacks - the entire leadership of all the main Palestinian militant groups: Hamas, Islamic Jihad and the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade.

The army also says it has dismantled two dozen bomb-making laboratories and seized 30 kilogrammes of explosives, as well as hundreds of illegal weapons and other militant paraphernalia, such as suicide bomb harnesses.

Present danger

But few people believe that the threat of Palestinian retaliation has been completely wiped out. The militants may be reeling now, but they are sure to regroup in time.

And if anything, the anger that fuels anti-Israeli attacks is stronger than ever, with allegations of a massacre in the Jenin refugee camp added to the long list of Palestinian grievances.

Funeral of al-Aqsa brigade leaders in Hebron
More assassinations will mean more angry funerals
Meanwhile, the West Bank town of Hebron - which has provided many a willing suicide bomber in the past - was hardly touched by Defensive Shield. Nor was the Gaza Strip, another Palestinian-ruled area where militants enjoy wide support.

Israel may have opted not to re-occupy these places for fear of engagements that could make the battle at Jenin seem small by comparison.

And in Hebron's case, it could have destabilised further a highly tense area where extremist Israeli settlers live under heavy military guard in the middle of the Palestinian population.

So a stepping up of incursions and targeted killings in Hebron and Gaza seems the most likely military option for Israel.

The way American Middle East diplomacy has been going recently, it seems unlikely Washington will mount a serious stand against the assassination of militants.

State Department officials have in the past criticised such killings, along with human rights groups and specialists in international law.

Palestinian discord?

Another dimension of the post-Defensive Shield environment is one which the Israeli Defence Forces may be less keen to trumpet - having insisted that their campaign was not intended to affect Palestinian civilians.

Now the wider Palestinian population no longer feels immune from direct Israeli punishment if a suicide bomb were to go off in an Israeli shopping mall or restaurant.

Jenin resident Mariam al-Ruzi
Civilians now feel they will suffer retribution
It is they who have borne the brunt of the curfews, the electricity cuts and shortages of food and medicine, with the danger of shoot-to-kill enforcement by the army if they left their homes.

Having until now broadly supported the militants' right to resist Israeli occupation - if not always their methods - Palestinian civilians now fear an even harsher campaign on their towns if attacks on their Israeli counterparts continue.

It remains to be seen whether this will drive a wedge between Palestinian civilians and the militants, which would be a first during the current intifada.

That may be the hope of Mr Sharon, who has built a career on the use of military power to achieve what he sees as Israel's political and security goals.

On the other hand, pressure is likely to start building on Mr Sharon to grasp the nettle of a political settlement with the Palestinian leadership in the aftermath of his offensive, something he has less experience in doing, and less inclination.

See also:

18 Apr 02 | Media reports
Mid-East press raps Powell
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