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Last Updated: Thursday, 15 July, 2004, 12:45 GMT 13:45 UK
Israel's strategy produces mixed results

By Barbara Plett
BBC correspondent in Jerusalem

Israeli army and intelligence officials are sounding increasingly confident that they are winning the war against the Palestinian uprising.

"It is possible to defeat Palestinian terror," said Intelligence Chief Avi Dichter recently. "It's a pit with a bottom, and if we continue with our policy, we will yet reach the bottom."

An Israeli soldier prepares to enter the Gaza Strip.
Israel believes its incursions have helped reduce attacks by militants.
Military and security officials cite as evidence a sharp drop in Palestinian suicide bombings inside Israel. There have been only four so far this year compared to 17 last year and 46 in 2002 and a dramatic decrease in the number of Israeli casualties.

They offer several explanations.

One is the completed section of the separation barrier in the northern part of the Israeli-occupied West Bank which seems to be stopping Palestinian attacks inside Israel.

Another is relentless incursions into Palestinian cities that over the past month have killed several local militia leaders.

A third is the assassinations which have killed the most senior political leaders of the powerful Islamic group Hamas in the occupied Gaza Strip.

The result, say officials, can be felt in Israeli cities.

There's a return to a sense of normality in the streets, and support for Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's plan to unilaterally withdraw from Gaza and four isolated Jewish settlements in the West Bank.

Relief is particularly palpable since the calm comes despite Hamas vows to take bloody revenge for the assassination of its leaders.

Underground

In the past Hamas always made good on its threats with large and deadly suicide bombings.

This time it hasn't.

There's no doubt that the movement has absorbed a harsh blow to its military leadership in the West Bank, from where most suicide bombers come, and where other militias are also fragmented and on the run.

Also, what remains of Hamas political leadership in Gaza is underground. But few Palestinians doubt that Hamas will survive these losses.

Recent polls show it to be the most popular political force in Gaza, and Islamic groups to be the most popular trend throughout the Occupied Territories.

Hamas supporters demonstrate in Gaza
Hamas has retained its popular support in Gaza
In Gaza, Hamas is pursuing its military strategy to escalate armed resistance so that any Israeli withdrawal would be seen as a defeat rather than a victory for Ariel Sharon.

Last month Hamas guerrillas in Gaza blew up a hated and heavily fortified Israeli outpost, killing one soldier.

They continue to fire crude rockets into southern Israel despite a sweeping and ongoing army incursion to stop them.

And the movement's charities and welfare services play a significant role in keeping the legions of Gaza's poor afloat.

It is also demanding a central role in any post-withdrawal Palestinian administration in Gaza, initially as a partner, but ultimately through new elections, a position backed by an overwhelming majority of Palestinians.

"Israel may think it is 'dismantling Hamas terrorist infrastructure' by assassinating its leaders but this is nonsense," says Palestinian political analyst Khalil Shikaki.

"How do you dismantle the infrastructure of an organisation that commands the support of 30% of the adult Palestinian population and has such an extensive social service network?"

Political strengthening

Hamas is a local, regional and political power.

Most Palestinians are convinced that Hamas will avenge the death of its leaders at some point, that it may be biding its time in order to strike a high level target. 

Whatever the case, Israel's apparent victory over the Palestinian Islamists is likely to be short term.

It's true the separation barrier, incursions and assassinations have put the militias on the defensive and made it more difficult for them to strike inside Israel.

But such measures have also contributed to the political strengthening of Islamic forces like Hamas and the smaller Islamic Jihad group in the Occupied Territories. 

And both movements see only one way to liberate the Palestinian territories: through armed resistance. 

Most Palestinian analysts believe they'll remain true to that strategy whether through suicide attacks or some other way. 


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