'Another Lebanon'

The newest phase of the Palestinian uprising began last week on a lonely mountain road near the West Bank city of Ramallah. At an Israeli military checkpoint known as Ein Ariq--a concrete hut surrounded by terraced orchards of olive trees--a three-man squad of Fatah guerrillas launched one of the deadliest attacks against the Israeli Army since the height of the guerrilla war in southern Lebanon. Shooting dead four sentries, the trio of gunmen killed two more soldiers relaxing inside their hut, then slipped away in the dark. Israelis across the political spectrum questioned whether the Army had a sound strategy for waging this new guerrilla-style conflict. "Israel is not collapsing," Prime Minister Ariel Sharon felt compelled to tell his worried countrymen. "The way things develop is up to us, in our behavior, in our resolve."

Sharon's own behavior, however, continues to confuse. After the Ein Ariq ambush, he dispatched helicopters and tanks to pound Palestinian Authority buildings and attack militants in the West Bank and Gaza, killing 18 people in the bloodiest day since the beginning of the intifada. Then came his speech to the nation, in which he vowed not to lead the country into "all-out war" and announced plans to set up a buffer zone between the West Bank and Israel. The plan aimed to enhance security against terrorist infiltrations, but will have little effect in curbing attacks deep inside the occupied territories. "This process has now reached a turning point," says a senior Israeli military officer. "The territories and Jewish settlements are turning into [another] Lebanon."

Palestinian militants say the targeting of soldiers represents a calculated shift from suicide bombings of Israeli civilians to more "legitimate" targets. During one seven-day period, Palestinian guerrillas killed 12 Israeli soldiers in four attacks inside the West Bank and Gaza. The attacks bore a striking resemblance to those carried out by Lebanon's Hizbullah, which waged an 18-year war of attrition against Israeli forces. Hizbullah guerrillas are hailed in the Arab world as the only force that ever defeated the Israeli Army, which withdrew from south Lebanon in 2000, and Palestinian militants may think they can replicate that success. "Sharon has tried to portray the Palestinian struggle as a terrorist campaign," says Hamas leader Ismail Abu Shanab. "We are showing that it is a valid struggle against the occupation."

Like their Hizbullah role models, Palestinian guerrillas have steadily improved both their tactics and their weaponry. Some of the arms and ammunition have been smuggled in from abroad, possibly with the help of Hizbullah intermediaries. But most of it, Pales-tinian sources say, is manufactured in clandestine factories in the alleys of the West Bank and Gaza. Late last year Hamas engineers developed a homemade rocket called the Kassam II, which reportedly has a range of up to 7.5 miles. And a joint team of Hamas and Fatah guerrillas in Gaza built a 100-kilogram bomb that blew up an Israeli-made Merkava tank and killed three soldiers in mid-February--an attack that shocked the Israeli top brass.

In a poll conducted by the Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper, Sharon's credibility rating has fallen to 54 percent--a plunge of 23 percentage points since last July. Nearly 15,000 people gathered at a Tel Aviv rally last week organized by Peace Now to demand that Israel withdraw from the territories, the largest such turnout since the latest intifada began. And 273 soldiers have signed an open letter stating their refusal to serve in the West Bank and Gaza. Criticism from Sharon's right wing is also intensifying. Cabinet hard-liners are pressing Sharon to send the military deeper into Palestinian cities to conduct house-by-house searches for weapons and militants. They also want Sharon to pound Yasir Arafat's infrastructure even harder. Yet the blows so far have done nothing to dampen the fury on the other side. "The Israelis are hiding inside their tanks," says one Hamas militant, wearing a camouflage jacket stuffed with cartridges. "But we have proven that we can kill any Israeli soldier anywhere." For Ariel Sharon and thousands of Israeli troops hunkered down inside enemy territory, the claim can no longer be taken lightly.

Ariel Sharon's credibility rating has plunged:
77%, July 2001
54%, February, 2002