The intifada took a fateful stride from popular uprising toward war this week with news that the Palestinians are stockpiling longer-range, more lethal weapons that could threaten Ashkelon and Tel Aviv, as well as paralyzing flights from Ben-Gurion International Airport.
Israeli patrol boats, backed by spotter planes and helicopters, intercepted a Lebanese boat smuggling Katyusha surface-to-surface rockets, shoulder-launched Strella anti-aircraft missiles, and an arsenal of shells, mortars, anti-tank grenades and land mines from northern Lebanon to Gaza.
The crew told their interrogators that this was the fourth such cargo they had carried on the same route. Other carriers are suspected of smuggling arms through tunnels from Egypt, across the Dead Sea from Jordan, and even in Yasser Arafat's private jet.
It is not known how many of the earlier weapons reached their destination. The smugglers routinely seal them in drums and throw them overboard to be picked up by Gaza fishermen. But Israel is working on the assumption that the Palestinians -- either Arafat's myriad security services or radicals like Hamas and Islamic Jihad -- are now capable of escalating the conflict. Israel would reply in kind.
Prime Minister Ariel Sharon accused Arafat of organizing the traffic in arms barred to the Palestinians under the 1993 Oslo accords. He told foreign reporters on Tuesday, "This is a very dangerous development. Only the Palestinian Authority has the means to collect such quantities of weapons. It underlines the intentions of the Palestinian Authority."
Even before the smugglers were arrested, the Israel Defense Forces had adopted a more aggressive response to Palestinian provocations. Sharon and Defense Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer had given local commanders, down to brigade level, a free hand to cross into Palestinian-controlled territory, as long as they got out quickly afterwards.
Yet two months after he was sworn in at the head of a national-unity coalition, the burly old warrior has learned the same hard lesson as his Labor predecessor, Ehud Barak. There is no short cut to the "peace with security" he promised in his election campaign. "It will not be easy," he confessed to the foreign media. "It will not take one day, it will not take one month. It will be a long struggle."
Israel, under governments of right or left, faces a constant battle to balance force with diplomacy, deterrence in a hostile Middle East with its claim to international legitimacy. Sharon cannot afford to write off the chance of a negotiated solution. But can he find a way back to the table?
Israeli and Palestinian commentators are increasingly skeptical. "The politicians are deluding the public with magical diplomatic or military solutions," Guy Bechor, an Arab affairs analyst, wrote in the daily Yediot Aharonot. "The sad truth is that the chronic Palestinian violence can last for years."
The violence intensified this week when the mutilated bodies of two teenaged Israelis -- one of them also an American citizen -- were discovered in a West Bank cave.
Yaakov Mandell, 13, who also held American citizenship, and Yosef Ishran, 14, were found Wednesday after searches were launched the night before, when the two failed to return from a hike near their West Bank settlement of Tekoa. Yaakov's family immigrated to Israel several years ago from CollegePark, Md., where his father is a rabbi.
For their part, the Palestinians are dismayed by Sharon's refusal to stop expanding settlements, a daily affront to their hopes of a viable state, and by his repudiation of Barak's quest (which they now regret having spurned) for an agreed end to the conflict.
The Likud leader rejected out of hand a call by an international committee, headed by ex-Senator George Mitchell, to freeze all settlement activity as a quid pro quo for ending the Palestinian violence.
Arafat wants negotiations to pick up where they left off with Barak. Sharon offers a "long period of nonbelligerency," which would give the Palestinians a state on barely 42 percent of the West Bank and Gaza. That doesn't look like being enough.
"The Palestinian leadership and the Palestinian public are interested in resuming negotiations," Ghassan Khatib, a Palestinian political scientist, said. "But for Arafat to convince his people, he has to show them achievements. Settlements are an obstacle to a comprehensive peace, and I don't see room for Palestinian flexibility on this issue."
Although Saeb Erekat, a senior Palestinian negotiator, is at pains to deny that the Oslo accords are dead, Khatib sees no way of reverting to their gradualist strategy, even if it were dressed up as a step towards a final deal. "We had an interim agreement before," he said, "and it didn't work."
Both Arafat and Sharon are hamstrung by the expectations they have generated. In a recent poll, 80 percent of Palestinians said they were eager to continue the intifada despite its hardships. Across the barricades, even the liberal daily Ha'aretz agrees with Sharon that Israel must not "reward" violence.
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