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Monday, 22 October, 2001, 14:50 GMT 15:50 UK
A new era of violence
Rehavam Zeevi's funeral
Rehavam Zeevi's death has led to renewed violence
James Robbins

It began with the death of a man known as Gandhi. A man whose real and rather more mundane name was Rehavam Zeevi.

He was a highly controversial politician in a land where politics is controversial by its very nature. And Gandhi was a rather strange name for him - since he showed no noticeable sign of any pacifist tendencies.

In this new era, Mr Sharon is writing his own script - a script in which he plays the Old Testament warrior
He was known more for his desire to remove all Palestinians from the West Bank and Gaza and send them to Arab countries - he used to call Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat a son of the devil.

Last month, Zeevi came up with a new idea - security forces should fire tranquilliser darts at Palestinian demonstrators. And every day he wore military dog tags round his neck, engraved with the names of missing Israeli soldiers.

The nickname Gandhi came from his physical appearance. As a young man in the army he was thin and he used to shave his head. Once, he was apparently seen with a white towel round his waist. So inevitably he became known as Gandhi. And the nickname stuck.

Renewed violence

In the hours after his death, Ariel Sharon held an emergency cabinet meeting. And he made an announcement - Zeevi's assassination marked the start of a new era. Nothing would ever be the same again, Israel's prime minister warned.

We wondered what this new era would look like. There have been many new eras in this land, some declared with triumph, and others with dread. Most are repeats of past eras.

Ariel Sharon
Sharon has promised a "new era" in the Middle East conflict
As dawn broke last Thursday we began to see what this particular age would look like.

Overnight, Israeli tanks had moved into parts of the West Bank. A 10-year-old Palestinian girl was killed when her classroom was hit by shellfire.

Later in Bethlehem, three Palestinian militia members were killed in an explosion.

For now, this new era looks like a vivid reincarnation of past violent times. Times marked by military raids, by suicide bombings and by vengeance.

Faded hope

It was not meant to be like this. A month ago a ceasefire was declared here, just a few days after the attacks on America.

The truce here was part of a US plan. In the American script of events, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict would quieten down, and not get in the way of efforts to build an international coalition against terrorism.

There was some hope that this time the ceasefire would stick. But history shows that in this conflict hope always tends to fade.

Rehavam Zeevi
"Gandhi" was a highly controversial politician
And Mr Sharon was never very happy with the US script. He felt he was being sidelined - even sacrificed - by the Americans. He was insulted by being given the walk-on part of a spear-carrier with a blunt spear.

So now, in this new era Mr Sharon is writing his own script - a script in which he plays the Old Testament warrior not the spear-carrier.

Most Israelis support him. Late at night in the streets of Jerusalem right-wing activists put up posters of Yasser Arafat and Osama Bin Laden. Written on the posters in large capitals, one word: Twins.

In recent days many Israelis have been collecting gas masks from distribution centres, and clearing out bomb shelters in their homes - waiting to see how these new times will work out.

Palestinians, too, wait and watch. Many are afraid that they will be the ones to pay the price for Mr Sharon's new era.

No compromise

Just a week ago, before Zeevi's assassination, there was an argument that is now half-forgotten amid the violence of the last few days.

The Hyatt Hotel, scene of the assassination
Rehavam Zeevi was shot in an East Jerusalem hotel
Mr Sharon held a meeting of his cabinet to discuss what to do in the West Bank city of Hebron. The moderate wing wanted him to withdraw the army from Palestinian neighbourhoods in the city. The hardline faction wanted him to tell the army to stay put.

For perhaps the last time, Mr Sharon chose to side with the moderates. And the army withdrew.

Two of his most hardline ministers announced they would resign in protest. They wanted tougher measures, no compromise with the Palestinians. Perhaps even a new era.

Well, one of the resigning ministers was the man once seen with a white towel round his waist - Rehavam Zeevi. Israel's Gandhi. Now, his death may be the event which makes his wish come true.

See also:

17 Oct 01 | Middle East
Analysis: Israel's 'new era'
17 Oct 01 | Middle East
Israeli minister shot dead
17 Oct 01 | Middle East
Questions over Israel security failure
17 Oct 01 | Middle East
Obituary: Rehavam Zeevi
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