Middle East on the Brink

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PIER PAOLO CITO/AP

Young Palestinians throw stones at an Israeli tank in Ramallah Friday Feb. 22

Ariel Sharon loathes Yasser Arafat. If he could do it all over again, Sharon has said, he would have killed Arafat in Lebanon 20 years ago when he had the chance. And yet last week—with the number of Israelis slaughtered on his watch rising, the country sliding closer to war and its citizens sinking deeper into despair—Sharon tried to keep his enemy awake, as if Arafat were the only person in the world who could understand his troubles. Before dawn on Wednesday, Israeli Apache helicopters fired missiles into a building next to the office compound in Ramallah where Arafat has been involuntarily quarantined since December. The next day Israeli gunships blitzed the compound again, this time destroying a building used by Palestinian Authority soldiers and injuring one of Arafat's bodyguards. Sharon was not aiming to hurt Arafat. A senior aide told TIME, "We want him to think twice before he sleeps at night."

Arafat didn't risk going to bed. In public, his aides boasted that he stayed in his bunker on al-Irsal Street, defiantly working through the attacks and refusing pleas from his friends to move to another location in Ramallah. "He doesn't want to be seen running from the Israelis," a senior adviser told Time. But privately, Arafat and his cabinet took "preventive measures" to save themselves. And Arafat, the aide says, "feels depressed and nervous."

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That trembling mood was shared last week by millions of traumatized Israelis and Palestinians, by neighboring Arab regimes fearful that the unrest would spread to their streets and by the increasingly isolated moderates in the Bush Administration eager to clean up the mess in the Middle East. The 17-month-old cycle of killing in Israel and the occupied territories has become a death spiral from which there seems to be no escape. More than 50 people died in a three-day exchange of suicide attacks and air strikes that left even hardened veterans of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict numb with disbelief. As it always does, escalation brought with it the perverse hope that both sides might finally be persuaded to find a way out of the madness. Late last week top Israeli and Palestinian security officials met under CIA auspices to discuss a cease-fire, and the Israeli army eased travel restrictions in the Gaza Strip. On Friday Secretary of State Colin Powell cited the security meetings and a new Saudi peace initiative as causes for mild optimism. "Both sides are still trying to find a way forward," he said.

The temporary outbreak of sanity came as the Israelis and Palestinians signaled that they are settling in for protracted combat. Attacks by Palestinian bombers on pizzerias and commuter buses are still common, but the most recent raids have targeted Israeli military installations, soldiers and police. On Tuesday gunmen from al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, a militia linked to Arafat's Fatah faction, ambushed and killed six Israeli soldiers at a West Bank checkpoint. That prompted Israeli assaults from land, air and sea against Arafat's few security buildings and police stations in the Gaza Strip and West Bank that haven't already been pulverized. After two days of bombardments, 26 Palestinians were dead. Sharon vowed he would not lead Israel into "all-out war," but many Israelis believe they are already in one. "The crisis is beginning to look chronic," says Nachman Ben-Yehuda, dean of sociology and anthropology at Hebrew University in Jerusalem. "And when people have chronic illness they adopt certain ways of thinking: despair, anger, frustration."

Sharon is feeling heat from all sides. Since returning to the public eye after a bout with the flu, the Prime Minister has come under siege by Israelis fed up with the carnage he was elected to stop. Hard-liners want him to topple Arafat and reclaim Palestinian-held land; the dovish opposition is calling for a unilateral pullout from the occupied territories and a new round of peace talks. In a national address, Sharon tried to mollify both wings by acceding to neither; he instead announced the creation of "buffer zones" to separate the Palestinian territories from Israel. But he left the idea so vague that it failed to bolster belief that he has any plan for rescuing the country from the abyss. According to a poll released last Friday, only 54% of Israelis believe Sharon is credible, down from 77% seven months ago.

Sharon's travails deepened just as Arafat showed signs of crawling out of the international doghouse. Arafat ordered the arrests of three Palestinian militants involved in last October's assassination of Israeli Tourism Minister Rehavam Zeevi, which Israel had demanded as a condition for lifting Arafat's travel restrictions. The Bush Administration maintained its criticism that Arafat is not doing more to halt terrorism, but the U.S. also toughened its rhetoric against Israel for killing civilians and attacking Palestinian security forces. "If you take away the instruments of the Palestinian Authority," a senior State Department official says, "you have chaos and violence."

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