Fierce fighting throughout the West Bank and Gaza on Friday and for most of the past week underscored the fact that, almost eight months into the current uprising, the two sides appear further than ever from reaching a truce, much less from concluding any sort of political agreements. Palestinian militants continue to fire mortars and rifles at Israeli positions and settlements, and Israel this week intercepted a shipment of weapons bound for Gaza from Lebanon, which included Katyusha rockets and surface-to-air missiles, and told the Israeli media they believe at least two such shipments got through before this one. In other words, Israel is bracing for a serious escalation of Palestinian guerrilla actions. And Israeli military sources warned Friday that the Fatah movement of their erstwhile negotiating partner Yasser Arafat, as well as his security and bodyguard detachments, were now considered enemy forces by Israel. Incursions by Israeli forces into areas formally under the jurisdiction of Arafat's Palestinian Authority, which were unprecedented a month ago, now occur almost daily, along with rocket strikes on Palestinian Authority installations. And yet the Palestinian militants appear undeterred, continuing a relentless campaign of attacks against Israelis.
On both sides, the strategy appears to be a war of attrition: The Israelis want to make the cost of continuing the uprising unbearable for Palestinians; the Palestinian militants want to make the cost of maintaining an Israeli military and settler presence in the West Bank and Gaza unbearable for the Israelis. And this trial of strength creates something of a long-term political crisis for leaders on all sides:
The sobering reality is that the events since last September have dramatically diminished not only the prospects for a return to peace negotiations, but also the appetite for it on either side. The Palestinian uprising has forged a unity among Israelis rarely seen outside of war-time, and they've lost all faith in negotiations with Arafat or any other Palestinian leader. Ideas such as a settlement freeze right now are dismissed as "rewarding violence," and the settlers are pressing the government for even harsher measures against Palestinians. Among Palestinians, too, nobody's talking about peace any more. And each new casualty on either side raises the political obstacles to the leaders returning to the negotiating table. The mutual hatred that Oslo was meant to bury may now be at an all time high.
Still, all is not lost. Peace and violence, of course, move in cycles in the Middle East. And while the peace cycle of the 1990s appears to have run its course, there's little doubt that eventually the two sides will tire of the increasingly bloody stalemate and start talking again. But that would require a winding down of the cycle of violence. And right now the signs are that it hasn't yet peaked.
With reporting by Jamil Hamad/Bethlehem