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Israeli-Palestinian Violence Raged Throughout 2001 - 2001-12-23

The violent conflict between Israel and the Palestinians raged virtually non-stop throughout 2001. More than 800 Palestinians and at least 240 Israelis have died and intense diplomatic efforts have failed to bring about an end to the bloodshed.

Jerusalem Correspondent Meredith Buel looks back at events during the past year that continued to bring death and suffering to the Middle East.

For Israelis and Palestinians, the year 2001 began the way 2000 ended. They found themselves locked in a bloody battle unlike anything either side had ever seen before.

Israelis also found themselves in the middle of a political fight for the job of prime minister between the incumbent, Ehud Barak, and opposition leader Ariel Sharon.

Mr. Barak spent much of his year-and-a-half in office trying, but failing, to reach peace agreements with the Palestinians and Syria.

After the Palestinian intifada broke out in September 2000, Ariel Sharon's promises to crack down hard on the Palestinians and bring security to the Jewish state attracted strong support from the Israeli public. Mr. Sharon won a landslide victory and pledged Israel would not negotiate under the cloud of continuing violence. "I will conduct negotiations with the Palestinian Authority when we reach the point that the area will be calm. One thing should be clear, Israel will not be negotiating under pressure of terror and violence," he said.

Akiva Eldar, a senior columnist for the Ha'aretz newspaper, has covered the Israeli-Palestinian conflict for nearly 20 years.

Mr. Eldar says the election of Mr. Sharon and the continuing popularity of his hardline policies, means Israel's approach toward the Palestinians will remain tough with little hope for resuming the peace process. "The fact that more than 70 percent of the Israelis are happy with Sharon, with all the baggage he is carrying, with all his history, with his message, this is very discouraging. It will take another revolution, or if you like a miracle, to get us back to where we were a year ago," he says.

Unlike the previous 1987-1993 intifada, when Israeli soldiers fired rubber coated steel bullets at stone-throwing Palestinians, this battle became an armed conflict.

Palestinian militants are using automatic weapons, suicide bombers and cars packed with explosives while Israel is blasting targets with combat helicopters and F-16 warplanes. Civilians are killed or wounded almost everyday.

A series of major diplomatic efforts by the United States, the European Community and other nations throughout the year had little impact on the continuing bloodshed.

An international commission, led by former U.S. Senator George Mitchell, made recommendations calling for a cease-fire and steps leading to a resumption of peace negotiations.

The director of the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency, George Tenet, came to the region in an effort to hammer out a truce.

The Bush administration appointed two envoys, State Department official William Burns and retired Marine Corps General Anthony Zinni, to work with both sides to end the violence. The envoys left while violence continued to rage.

After the September 11 terrorist attacks on the United States, British Prime Minister Tony Blair traveled to the Middle East to express his hope that the shock of the U.S. attacks might have a positive impact on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. "I believe that if anything good can come out of the terrible events of the 11th of September, it is a recognition of our collective determination to fight terrorism, to have religious tolerance, and to make sure that here in the Middle East we have a peace process that allows decent people to live side by side in peace, stability and prosperity together," he said.

In December, after a string of suicide bombings and attacks, diplomatic efforts to revive the peace process were in tatters. Israel broke off contacts with Chairman Arafat, calling him "irrelevant," and launched incursions into the West Bank and Gaza Strip in an effort to round up terrorists.

Palestinian analyst Ghassan Khatib calls the Israeli decision a sign of "political bankruptcy." "I think Israel by this step is moving in the wrong direction," he says. "Without addressing the political causes of the current violence, which is the occupation, and without negotiating an exchange of a complete ending of occupation on one hand and complete and comprehensive peace and security on the other hand, there is no way out."

The Israeli government has said repeatedly it does not want to harm Mr. Arafat or topple his Palestinian Authority.

Israeli newspaper columnist Akiva Eldar, however, says Mr. Sharon's statements calling Mr. Arafat a liar and comparing him to alleged terrorist Osama bin Laden are strong indications the prime minister has no intention of reaching any peace agreement with the current Palestinian leadership. "[Sharon] does not want a deal with Arafat. He wants to get rid of Arafat. I mean if Arafat is bin Laden, and this is what he kept saying, and it doesn't matter that afterward he took it back. I know what he says in closed rooms, he calls him the dog. If Arafat is a dog, if Arafat is bin Laden, if Arafat is a pathological liar, I mean Arafat is very far from being an angel or a saint, but having said all that about him I don't think that Sharon wants to deal with him," he says. "This would be idiotic. If you can't trust Arafat, if Arafat wants to destroy you and this is what you believe, you don't make a deal with such a human being, you destroy him."

Near the end of the year Mr. Arafat, under intense international pressure, announced a ban on all attacks, including suicide bombings, against Israelis. The militant group Hamas, which has killed dozens of Israelis in suicide attacks, announced it would support such a ban.

Palestinians and Israelis, however, are equally pessimistic about chances for peace in 2002. Analysts say the parties are polarized and trust has vanished.

They also say it would be tragic for both Israelis and Palestinians to suffer through another year like 2001.

Part of VOA's Year End Series for 2001