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Israel Has Little to Show for Security Crackdowns in 2002 - 2002-12-25

After more than two years of a deepening cycle of violence, Israel has re-occupied most of the West Bank, making almost daily incursions into Palestinian cities. But the action has not brought the security Israelis had hoped for. Instead, Palestinian militants continue to carry out suicide attacks against Israelis. The dawn of 2003 shows a level of distrust between the two sides that holds little hope for peace any time soon.

For Israelis, the last year brought what seemed to be an unrelenting string of death and terror.

One witness to a bombing described it this way: "I was in the bed. I heard the bomb. I thought it was an airplane and pretty soon I would hear the plane going by. Then I didn't hear the plane. Then all of a sudden there was all the ambulances coming by."

Israel's reaction to attacks like the bus bombing in Jerusalem this witness described has been swift and certain.

In April, Israeli troops reoccupied many Palestinian cities and towns, actively tracking down those they say were behind the violence. After a brief withdrawal they moved back in force in June, taking control of seven of the eight major Palestinian population centers in the West Bank.

Palestinians denounced the Israeli incursions as they mourned the civilian deaths that have accompanied them. They say the Israeli response to suicide bombings and shootings of Israeli civilians has brought its own terror to the Palestinian people. And they accuse the government of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon of trying to kill the peace process, too.

"They are targeting the peace process. They are destroying the Palestinian moderate camp," he said. "They are pushing the whole Middle East region in the path of darkness, bloodshed, violence and counter violence."

"I'm a father of four," said Saeb Erakat, chief Palestinian peace negotiator . "And it aches my heart to see Israeli children die in Israeli streets as much as it aches my heart to see Palestinians swim in their blood and die everyday."

The Israeli government says it will continue to use whatever measures it deems necessary to respond to the terrorism. "No country can tolerate that kind of action," said Government spokesman Avi Pazner. "And Israel will not tolerate that kind of action," he said. "We will do whatever it takes to defend ourselves and defend ourselves we will."

Israel's actions in the Palestinian territories have drawn widespread international criticism. The U.N.'s top Middle East envoy Terje Roed-Larsen was the latest when he said Israel has created a humanitarian catastrophe for Palestinians.

In late December, Israeli Army Chief-of-Staff Moshe Yaalon reported on the results of the military campaign against Palestinian militants. He said 200 terrorists have been killed by Israeli forces, more than 4,700 suspected Palestinian militants have been arrested and more than 109 homes have been demolished.

Jerusalem mayor Ehud Olmert believes this hard-line policy has been effective and, like many Israelis, he supports it. "Every single evening in the last few months there were at least 10 attempts either of terror attacks, shooting attacks, or suicidal attacks and we were successful in preventing many of those attempts. Most [were] outside Jerusalem, in the bases of the terrorism, in Ramallah, Jenin, Nablus or Bethlehem," he said.

Yet no one is ready to say that an end to the violence is in sight.

Indeed, Palestinians say the Israeli policy is only making things worse - the nearly constant curfews in effect for some two million Palestinians in the West Bank, the frequent Israeli raids with helicopter gunships and tanks firing into densely populated neighborhoods killing unarmed civilians in the process, and the destruction of the homes of suspected militants.

The pressure is now on for the United States, Russia, European Union, and United Nations to finalize a plan for moving the peace process forward. The quartet, as it is called, has been working to get the peace process back on track. The United States offered what it calls a roadmap for peace but Israeli and Palestinian leaders complained the plan was too vague.

Saudi Arabia also put forward a proposal offering recognition of Israel in exchange for the creation of a Palestinian state. But that, too, has made no headway in the atmosphere of terror attacks and reprisals. And as the year ended, British Prime Minister Tony Blair invited Palestinian leaders to London in January in the latest attempt to break the deadlock in the Middle East peace process.

But reaching agreement on key issues will be difficult. For the moment at least, the only thing Israel and the Palestinians can agree on is that the divide between them seems greater than ever and the prospects for some sort of dialogue seem more remote than ever.

Part of VOA yearend series.