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At Two-year Mark, Intifada Shows Israel Can Be Unexpectedly Resilient

Israeli society has been bruised and brutalized by two years of nearly unremitting Palestinian terror and violence, but as the intifada enters its third year it has brought the Palestinians no political gain whatsoever.

On the contrary, there is now far less on the table for the Palestinians than when they launched their campaign of terror in September 2000.

At the time, Israel had just made an unprecedentedly generous offer at the Camp David summit, offering to withdraw from virtually all the territories conquered in the 1967 Six-Day War, share Jerusalem with a Palestinian state and seek creative solutions to control of the Temple Mount.

Just two years later, the Palestinian state-in-the-making lies in tatters, the Palestinian economy is devastated, and Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat — the most frequent White House guest during the Clinton years — is shunned as a terrorist and can’t even convince his own legislature to approve his Cabinet.

By choosing a strategy of indiscriminate killing of civilians, the Palestinians have squandered their two most valuable assets: international legitimacy for their cause and the support of the Israeli peace camp, which before the intifada had convinced most Israelis of the possibility of peaceful coexistence.

Though the Camp David offer granted the Palestinians almost all their ostensible demands, Palestinian leaders believed that violence would quickly pry from Israel a few last crumbs — without the Palestinians being forced to make any concessions of their own or declare an end to their conflict with Israel.

According to Israeli military officials, the Palestinians’ model was Lebanon. The ragged Israeli withdrawal in May 2000 led many Arabs to conclude that sustained violence and even moderate casualties would lead Israel to beat a similarly chaotic retreat from the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Hezbollah leader Sheik Hassan Nasrallah had compared Israeli society to a spider web, brittle and easily destroyed. True, he argued, Israel had a strong army and a sophisticated industrial base, but Israelis over the years had become weak and pampered.

In Lebanon, the killing of some two dozen Israeli soldiers each year, far from the homefront, had provoked a popular movement that forced Israel to withdraw unilaterally from its security zone. That experience, according to Nasrallah’s theory, proved that Israeli society could no longer stomach civilian or battlefield losses, and that Israelis had lost their will to fight.

Palestinian leaders, from Arafat down to militia commanders in the field, eagerly adopted the spider web theory and tried to apply it with the intifada — except that events on the ground disproved it. What they hadn’t counted on is that Israelis would react differently when the battle was not on some distant border but in the heart of their capital or in all the cities of their densely-populated coastal plain.

Israelis grieved over their losses and changed their lifestyles, but even after two years of unremitting violence, they show no signs of folding.

On the contrary, Israel has proven it can not just take a hit, but can hit back hard. As for their will to fight, more Israeli reservists turned up for this spring’s Operation Protective Wall — the Israel Defense Force’s first major counter-offensive into Palestinian territory after 18 months of fighting — than had been summoned.

The army’s new chief of staff, Moshe Ya’alon, says the staying power of Israeli society will determine the outcome of the conflict.

“That is what the campaign is all about,” Ya’alon said in a recent interview with the Ha’aretz newspaper. “When the Palestinians initiated the confrontation, their evaluation was that Israel would not be able to bear even a few dozen casualties. They were surprised. Operation Protective Wall showed them they were not dealing with a spider web, but with a tiger.”

Unlike the Palestinians, who Ya’alon believes wish to annihilate Israel, Israel does not seek to destroy the Palestinians. Victory for Israel, therefore, means forcing the Palestinians to realize that terror will get them nowhere, Ya’alon contends.

Israeli society must show no signs of cracking and Israeli politicians must offer no concessions under threat of violence, he says — or there will be no end to Arab terror designed to force Israeli concessions.

As the intifada enters its third year, 612 Israelis have been killed, including 427 civilians. Of those, 250 were killed in suicide bombings, including 227 civilians. More than 4,500 have been wounded, over 3,200 of them civilians.

While the Palestinians have suffered more casualties, the percentage of civilian victims on the Israeli side is far higher — a reflection of the fact that Israel has striven to avoid harming Palestinian civilians, while the Palestinians have made civilians their primary targets, hoping to break Israeli society.

Still, the two-year campaign of terror, probably the most intense the world has ever seen, has so far failed to break the Israeli public’s spirit or pressure the Israeli government into concessions. These, in Ya’alon’s view, are the decisive political and military facts after two years of fighting.

But that is not to say that the intifada has not had a devastating impact on the Israeli psyche and on Israeli public opinion; it even has affected core notions of the meaning and purpose of the Jewish state.

One central strand of Zionism, associated mainly with the right-of-center Likud Party, stresses the prevalence of anti-Semitism and the resulting need for a place of Jewish refuge and self-defense. Another, associated mainly with the left-of-center Labor Party, focuses on Zionism’s role in normalizing the Jewish people and integrating them into the Middle East.

The ruthlessness of the intifada has strengthened the more pessimistic Likud view. If elections were held today, opinion polls show, Likud would crush Labor by a ratio of almost two to one.

The indiscriminate murder of innocents also has led to a hardening of Israeli attitudes toward Palestinians and a readiness to contemplate countermeasures that may impinge on Palestinian civil rights. Those measures include destroying the houses of terrorists’ relatives or deporting relatives who aid terrorists from their homes to other Palestinian-ruled areas.

Israelis lately seem to have little patience for human rights groups that protest such measures, asking cynically why these groups have little to say about the human rights of murdered and terrorized Israelis.

The impact of the violence on Israeli opinion has been enormous. According to a recent poll in the Israeli daily Ma’ariv, 79 percent of Israelis say the Oslo peace agreements are no longer valid, and that Israel should adopt a different path to accommodation with the Palestinians. Most Israelis see Arafat as the evil force behind the intifada, and 81 percent are convinced he does not want peace with Israel under any circumstances.

Yet 45 percent of Israelis still believe that the Palestinian people as a whole, under different leadership, would be ready for a peace agreement with Israel. But that is a far cry from the heady days of Oslo, when over 80 percent of Israelis believed in peace with the Palestinians.

In addition, the terror has changed the way Israelis go about their daily lives. During waves of violence people don’t travel unless they have to, so places of entertainment, restaurants and shopping malls suffer — even though over 100,000 Israelis work as security guards in public places.

Such lifestyle changes, and the fact that the violence has driven away tourists and investors, have hurt the Israeli economy, creating unprecedentedly high unemployment and wreaking havoc among small businesses.

Yet with Israeli military and administrative responses to the terror — closing borders to Palestinian workers, imposing curfews on Palestinian areas and mounting counter-terrorism operations in all the West Bank cities — it is the Palestinians who are suffering most from their offensive. Their economy, their cities, their government and their daily lives all lie in ruins.

Since Operation Protective Wall this spring, the IDF has devastated the terrorist organizations. Voices on the Palestinian side increasingly are calling the intifada a disaster and urging their leaders to turn to non-violent means of opposing Israel.

Though they have succeeded in dominating such international forums as last year’s U.N. World Conference Against Racism, the Palestinians have failed to mobilize the international community to intercede and force Israeli concessions.

Palestinian attempts to lynch Israel in the court of world opinion failed when the United Nations exposed Palestinian claims of an Israeli massacre in the Jenin refugee camp this spring as empty posturing.

As for the globetrotting Arafat, while still the toast of anti-globalization activists and a few other idealists, he finds himself shunned as a terrorist by the world’s lone superpower and scarcely ventures forth from his ruined compound.

For the first time since the intifada began at Rosh Hashana two years ago, Israeli politicians are saying the end is in sight. Both Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Defense Minister Benjamin Ben Eliezer say a new Palestinian leadership would be willing to strike a deal quickly. If and when Arafat goes, they seem to think, the intifada will go with him.

Yet the intifada, Ya’alon noted, is like judo — you think you are about to throw your opponent, and suddenly find it is you who are being thrown. Even if it does succeed in decisively beating back the Palestinian onslaught, Israel may find the world demands that it immediately give the Palestinians at the bargaining table what they failed to win on the battlefield.

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