Israeli society has been bruised and brutalized by two years of Palestinian terror and violence, but as the intifada enters its third year, it has brought the Palestinians no political gain whatsoever.
On the contrary, there is far less on the table for the Palestinians than when they launched their campaign of terror in late September 2000. Now, with the Palestinians' cities in ruin, their leader isolated and Palestinian public figures increasingly admitting that the intifada has been disastrous for their cause, Israeli politicians are beginning to believe that the end of the onslaught is in sight.
Some of that optimism, however, was quashed Wednesday, when a Palestinian suicide bomber carried out the first such attack in six weeks.
An Israeli policeman was killed and at least two people injured in Wednesday's attack near a bus stop in northern Israel. The blast went off during afternoon rush hour on a highway outside the Israeli Arab town of Umm el-Fahm, which is several miles from Afula. It was the first suicide attack since Aug. 4, when a bomber blew himself up on a bus traveling from Haifa to Safed, killing himself and nine Israelis.
In another terror attack earlier Wednesday, one Israeli was killed and another wounded when Palestinian gunmen ambushed their car in the West Bank. The gunmen opened fire near the settlement of Mevo Dotan, causing the car to overturn.
In yet another incident Wednesday, the scorched body of an Israeli apparently slain by terrorists was found in eastern Jerusalem.
The body of David Buhbut, a 67-year-old resident of Ma'aleh Adumim, was found near the village of Azariya. Family members identified the charred victim by his clothing and other personal belongings. According to the victim's family, Buhbut had been missing since Tuesday. He was believed to have gone to the village to purchase building materials.
Given the history of the past two years, however, it is unlikely that such attacks will shake the Israeli resolve to overcome the Palestinian onslaught. When the intifada began during Rosh Hashanah two years ago, Israel had just made an unprecedentedly generous offer at the Camp David summit. It offered to withdraw from virtually all the territories conquered in the 1967 Six-Day War, share Jerusalem with a Palestinian state and seek creative solutions for control of the Temple Mount.
Though the Camp David offer granted the Palestinians almost all their ostensible demands, Palestinian leaders believed that violence would quickly pry from Israel a few last crumbs, without the Palestinians being forced to make any concessions of their own or declare an end to their conflict with Israel.
According to Israeli military officials, the Palestinians' model was Lebanon. The ragged Israeli withdrawal from Lebanon in May 2000 led many Arabs to conclude that sustained violence, and even moderate casualties, would lead Israel to beat a similarly chaotic retreat from the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
Hezbollah leader Sheik Hassan Nasrallah had compared Israeli society to a spider web, brittle and easily destroyed. True, he argued, Israel had a strong army and a sophisticated industrial base, but Israelis over the years had become weak and pampered.
In Lebanon, the killing of some two dozen Israeli soldiers each year, far from the home front, had provoked a popular movement that forced Israel to withdraw unilaterally from its security zone. That experience, according to Nasrallah's theory, proved that Israeli society could no longer stomach civilian or battlefield losses, and that Israelis had lost their will to fight.
Palestinian leaders, from Yasser Arafat down to militia commanders in the field, eagerly adopted the spider-web theory and tried to apply it to the intifada -- except that events on the ground disproved it. What they hadn't counted on is that Israelis would react differently when the battle was not on some distant border, but in the heart of their capital or in the cities of their densely populated coastal plain.
Israelis grieved over their losses and changed their lifestyles, but even after two years of unremitting violence, they show no signs of folding. On the contrary, Israel has proven it can not just take a hit, but can hit back hard.
As for their will to fight, more Israeli reservists turned up for this spring's Operation Protective Wall -- the Israel Defense Force's first major counteroffensive into Palestinian territory after 18 months of fighting -- than had been summoned.
The army's new chief of staff, Lt. Gen Moshe Ya'alon, said the staying power of Israeli society will determine the outcome of the conflict. Unlike the Palestinians, who Ya'alon believes wish to annihilate Israel, Israel does not seek to destroy the Palestinians.
Victory for Israel, therefore, means forcing the Palestinians to realize that terror will get them nowhere, Ya'alon said in a recent interview with the Ha'aretz newspaper. Israeli society must show no signs of cracking, and Israeli politicians must offer no concessions under threat of violence, he said, or there will be no end to Palestinian terror designed to force Israeli concessions.
As the intifada enters its third year, 612 Israelis have been killed, including 427 civilians. Of those, 250 were killed in suicide bombings, including 227 civilians. More than 4,500 have been wounded, over 3,200 of them civilians.
While the Palestinians have suffered more casualties, the percentage of civilian victims on the Israeli side is far higher, a reflection of the fact that Israel has striven to avoid harming Palestinian civilians, while the Palestinians have made civilians their primary targets.
But despite the Israeli resolve, the intifada has had a devastating impact on the Israeli psyche and on Israeli public opinion. It even has affected core notions of the meaning and purpose of the Jewish State.
One central strand of Zionism, associated mainly with the right-of-center Likud Party, stresses the prevalence of anti-Semitism and the resulting need for a place of Jewish refuge and self-defense. Another, associated mainly with the left-of-center Labor Party, focuses on Zionism's role in normalizing the Jewish people and integrating them into the Middle East.
The ruthlessness of the intifada has strengthened the more pessimistic Likud view. If elections were held today, opinion polls show Likud would crush Labor by a ratio of almost 2-1.
The indiscriminate murder of innocents also has led to a hardening of Israeli attitudes toward Palestinians, and a readiness to accept countermeasures that may impinge on Palestinian civil rights. The measures include destroying the houses of terrorists' relatives or deporting relatives who aid terrorists from their homes to other Palestinian-ruled areas.
The impact of the violence on Israeli opinion has been enormous. According to a recent poll in the Israeli daily, Ma'ariv, 79 percent of Israelis say the Oslo peace agreements are no longer valid, and that Israel should adopt a different path to accommodation with the Palestinians.
Most Israelis see Arafat as the evil force behind the intifada, and 81 percent are convinced that he does not want peace with Israel under any circumstances. Yet 45 percent of Israelis still believe that the Palestinian people as a whole, under different leadership, would be ready for a peace agreement with Israel. That is a far cry from the heady days of Oslo, when more than 80 percent of Israelis believed in peace with the Palestinians.
In addition, the terror has changed the way Israelis go about their daily lives. During waves of violence, people don't travel unless they have to, so places of entertainment, restaurants and shopping malls suffer, even though more than 100,000 Israelis work as security guards in public places. Such lifestyle changes, and the fact that the violence has driven away tourists and investors, have hurt the Israeli economy, creating unprecedentedly high unemployment and wreaking havoc among small businesses.
Yet with Israeli military and administrative responses to the terror -- closing borders to Palestinian workers, imposing curfews on Palestinian areas and mounting counterterrorism operations in all the West Bank cities -- it is the Palestinians who are suffering most from their offensive. Their economy, their cities, their government and their daily lives all lie in ruins. Since Operation Protective Wall this spring, the IDF has devastated the terrorist organizations.
Voices on the Palestinian side increasingly are calling the intifada a disaster and urging their leaders to turn to nonviolent means of opposing Israel.
Though they have succeeded in dominating such international forums as last year's U.N. World Conference Against Racism, the Palestinians have failed to mobilize the international community to intercede and force Israeli concessions.
As for Arafat, while still the toast of anti-globalization activists and a few other idealists, he finds himself shunned as a terrorist by the world's lone superpower, can't convince his own legislative body to approve his Cabinet and scarcely ventures forth from his ruined compound.
Both Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Defense Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer say a new Palestinian leadership would be willing to strike a deal quickly. If and when Arafat goes, they seem to think, the intifada will go with him. Yet the intifada, Ya'alon noted, is like judo: you think you are about to throw your opponent, and suddenly find it is you who are being thrown.
Even if it does succeed in decisively beating back the Palestinian onslaught, Israel may find the world demanding that it quickly give the Palestinians at the bargaining table what they failed to win on the battlefield.
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