Into the War Zone

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It was the kind of radio call colonel Shlomo Dagan, commander of Israel's Southern Gaza Brigade, has been getting all too often lately a report of another Israeli settler shot by Palestinians. When the call came last Tuesday, he gathered his flak jacket, his helmet and his men and rushed to the dangerous road linking the Gaza Strip's Jewish settlements to Israel. An 18-year-old Jewish settler lay dead in the passenger seat of a car, hit by sniper fire. Dagan, with his camouflage helmet perched on top of spiky blond hair, arrived in minutes and began shouting orders.

Within a 50-yd. radius of the scene, soldiers worked to trace the origin of the shots. Fearing that other shooters might be training their sights on his men, Dagan ordered an armored personnel carrier and a Merkava tank to rumble up to secure a 500-yd. perimeter. The soldiers traced the attack to a Palestinian police post near the road. They found spent cartridges inside; the police were nowhere to be seen. Dagan ordered the post demolished. As darkness fell, the colonel reopened the three-mile road connecting the Gaza Strip's 5,000 settlers to Israel, but he knew the attackers would be back. "The peak of the confrontation," he says, "is ahead of us."

Instead of the rock-throwing melees that have characterized the Aqsa intifadeh's first weeks, the latest clashes between Israelis and Palestinians are what Israelis are calling a "near war." Yasser Arafat's Palestinian Authority is de-emphasizing both the demonstrations that cost so many Palestinian lives in the early weeks of the intifadeh and the rifle assaults on Jewish neighborhoods that drew tank and rocket attacks on Palestinian homes. Instead it seems Palestinian security forces are aiming to hit Jewish settlers and the soldiers who protect them.

At the heart of the shift in Palestinian tactics is Arafat's desire to see an international observer force stationed along the Green Line between Israel and the Palestinian territories. Though Arafat made moves at week's end to restart peace talks, aides say he is really aiming for a multinational presence to guarantee Palestinian security. And something else: an observer force would give Arafat a chance to mark a favorable border for a Palestinian state. That's just one reason Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak is opposed to the idea.

In the area of the Gaza Strip patrolled by Dagan's troops, 10 Israelis have died in the past two weeks in terrorist shootings and bombings. In the same period, Dagan's troops have shot 10 Palestinians as they tried to break into Jewish settlements. Israel blames Arafat's top men, particularly Preventive Security chief Mohammed Dahlan. Dahlan's job is supposed to be suppressing Palestinian violence before it can threaten Arafat or Israel. In fact, Israelis charge, he is orchestrating the fighting. Last week one of Dahlan's men, still carrying his Israeli-issued ID card, crawled into the Kfar Darom settlement and shot two soldiers dead before he was killed. Dahlan subsequently said he was one of his best men and gave him a posthumous promotion. In interviews this week, Dahlan has dodged the question of his involvement. He turns it back and accuses the Israelis of being the chief terrorists.

After the Kfar Darom attack, Israel sent helicopter gunships to bombard Dahlan's offices. But the reprisal triggered the sort of reaction Barak fears most: Egypt yanked its ambassador from Tel Aviv, and even his U.S. supporters questioned Israel's use of force. In Israel, however, the reaction was different: 100,000 demonstrators converged on Jerusalem to demand a tougher response.

Arafat seems at times to be trying to slow the fighting. Two weeks ago, he ordered his West Bank security chief Jibril Rajoub to stop the gunfire that had been peppering the Jerusalem suburb of Gilo. The quiet held until a Palestinian force led by one of Rajoub's rivals opened fire late Thursday. In response, Israeli guns lit up the night over Beit Jalla. In his office in Gaza City, Arafat lit into the head of his National Security Forces in the West Bank. "Find out who are the sons of bitches shooting at Gilo," Arafat said, according to people who were with him. His hands shaking with fury, Arafat yelled, "Screw them. I want this done immediately."

Eight weeks ago, the Palestinians began the latest protests with old-style demonstrations. Then they started shooting at Israeli towns. Now they are attacking settlements. It's not at all clear what the next step will be, but every step seems to get bloodier.

With reporting by Jamil Hamad / Jerusalem and Aharon Klein / Kfar Darom