The Palestinian intifada, which began as a civil uprising against the Israeli occupation, is rapidly becoming a low-intensity war between armed forces. And the low intensity is getting higher and higher by the day.
The conflict escalated on Monday night when Palestinian gunmen lobbed five 82mm mortars from the Gaza Strip into the Israeli desert town of Sderot, 4 kilometers north of the border. Although no one was hurt, Israel retaliated with tank, helicopter and naval shelling of Palestinian police and other security bases. One policeman was killed and 36 other Palestinians wounded.
For the first time, ground forces entered areas under exclusive Palestinian control, cutting the 365-square-kilometer strip into three zones, each isolated from the other to prevent the movement of weapons. The army sealed all routes in and out of the strip, including the land crossing into Egypt and the Gaza airport.
Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's spokesman, Ra'anan Gissin, told me, "We had to act like this because using mortar fire on a town was a grave escalation for the purpose of killing innocent civilians. They fired at 6:30 in the evening, when the streets are full of people doing their shopping or going home from work. If one of the mortars had hit the town center, we would have had dozens of casualties. And we know for sure that these attacks are directed by the Palestinian security forces."
The home-made mortars fired on Sderot are seen by Israelis as crossing a red line. Mortars have been deployed against Jewish settlements in the Gaza Strip and against the border kibbutz of Nahal Oz, but the 18,000 residents of Sderot thought they were safely out of the battle zone. Sharon's sheep ranch is barely 8 kilometers further north.
Although the mortars are a short-range weapon, Israelis fear that the Palestinians will feel free to extend the war to other population centers using more ambitious arms.
Palestinian Information Minister Yasser Abed Rabbo accused Israel of perpetrating a massacre. "This is the harshest attack we have borne since 1967," he said. "We shall go back to the United Nations Security Council and demand that they dispatch an international force." Israel has consistently refused to accept such a force, and the United States vetoed a Security Council resolution to deploy international monitors.
Israeli commentators saw the escalation as an expression of Palestinian frustration that the intifada is earning them no dividends. "They are frustrated at the poise displayed by the Israeli public," Sever Plotzker wrote in Yediot Aharonot. "Frustrated at the harsh criticism voiced by the Arab world about the intifada in its latest stages. Frustrated at the cold shoulder the new American administration has turned to Yasser Arafat. Frustrated at the slow but clear change in European public opinion, from understanding Palestinian violence to rejecting it. Frustrated at the economic deterioration, the civil unrest and the social destitution."
Hamas, the Islamic Resistance Movement, claimed responsibility for the mortars, but Israeli spokesmen accused Arafat's myriad security services of transforming themselves into "terrorist organizations." Earlier this week, the Palestinian Authority reinforced Israeli suspicions of collusion by releasing Mohammed Deif, the most-wanted Hamas terrorist, from preventive detention.
Israeli troops pulled out of Palestinian territory barely 24 hours after they entered. This followed American condemnation of the incursion as "excessive and disproportionate," though Israeli officials insisted that they left because their mission was completed. Defense Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer said during a visit to Sderot: "I hope that this was a one-time event and the Palestinian leadership understood the message."
As with the air strike on a Syrian radar station in Lebanon on Monday, the Israeli advance into Gaza was a carefully calibrated operation. Sharon's team does not want to provoke the Arab states into a wider conflagration, nor does it want to alienate world opinion, just when it seems to be turning against Arafat. Israel did, however, leave its new roadblocks in place. Gaza remains divided.
The Israeli tanks and armored personnel carriers deliberately did not enter populated areas. They attacked Palestinian police stations and uprooted orchards which provided cover for the mortars. "We have no quarrel with the Palestinian population," Ben-Eliezer said. "We have a quarrel with the Palestinian leadership, which is leading matters on the road to chaos."
At the same time, Foreign Minister Shimon Peres informed his Syrian counterpart, Farouk Ashara, that Israel was not seeking escalation in Lebanon. In a message relayed via the Russian Foreign Minister, Igor Ivanov, he said it was a signal to the Syrians that they had to restrain Hezbollah. Ashara, who was visiting Moscow, relayed back that Syria too was not interested in escalating the conflict, though he defined Hezbollah operations in the disputed Sheba Farm as "legitimate."