A month ago we were a nation hopeful that we were reaching peace agreements with our neighbours and now we are a people reeling from one body blow after another, licking our wounds each day and praying that tomorrow we will wake up from this nightmare and discover that after all it was only a very bad dream.
I hope and pray that I am wrong, but it's hard to be optimistic.
Today has been the hardest in a series of hard days. Lately people have started asking us whether the situation has calmed down, since they haven't heard much on the news recently. Unfortunately, the opposite is true. Events escalate from day to day. Incidents that once would have made major headlines are overshadowed with each new escalation and become absorbed into the daily routine. It is now virtually taken for granted that residential areas near Palestinian-controlled towns are the constant targets of Palestinian sniper fire, and that Israeli vehicles driving near Palestinian, and sometimes Israeli Arab, villages will be the targets of rocks and firebombs. There were over 3200 attacks against Israeli targets in October, including over 600 shootings. Such events are reported briefly as part of a tally of the day's incidents, while broadcasts focus on the newest developments.
Today, for example, Channel 1 reporter Alon Ben-David rattled off the list of Jewish communities which came under attack during the day: Gilo, Psagot, Vered Yeriho, Elisha, Netzer Hazani, Netzarim, Nitzanei Oz, Givat Hadagan in Efrat and the Jewish quarter in Hebron. And then there were the day's assaults on Israeli civilian vehicles, as well as army bases, checkpoints, patrols, etc. To top it off, Palestinians opened fire on the holy site of Rachel's Tomb, an Israeli-held enclave in northern Bethlehem. Last night, an Israeli ambulance en route from Betar Elite to Jerusalem was stoned passing the Palestinian village of Husan. The driver was hit in the eye and required hospital treatement. Several Israeli buses were shot at in recent days; yesterday, an Israeli passenger was injured near the Palestinian town of Kalkilya when shots were fired at a bus en route to Alfei Menashe.
But today's big news was that three Israeli soldiers were killed and four wounded by Palestinian attackers near Jericho and Bethlehem. Palestinians in Jericho opened fire on soldiers guarding the Elisha outpost, killing a reserve officer. Palestinian gunmen based themselves in the Jericho casino and an adjacent hotel. In response tonight, Israel fired a tank shell at the casino, for the first time causing extensive damage to the building. The casino and hotel have served as regular sniper bases in recent weeks, from which Elisha and the nearby Jewish village of Vered Yeriho have been targeted. On a nightly basis, Palestinians from the Jericho suburb of Ouja attack Jewish travelers on the highway which runs through their village, setting up roadblocks which sever one of Israel's main north-south arteries. Last night, local Palestinians also set fire to orchards and banana groves belonging to Jewish villages in the area.
In the Bethlehem area this afternoon, Palestinian gunmen, including uniformed police, in the Palestinian-controlled village of El-Khader, ambushed an Israeli patrol with automatic gunfire near the archaeological site of Solomon's Pools. Two soldiers were killed in the initial attack and four injured. Heavy Palestinian fire made it difficult to evacuate the wounded. The army had to bring in tanks, an armoured personnel carrier and an attack helicopter to provide cover for the evacuation under heavy fire. It took three hours to get the wounded to safety. Later in the battle, a Palestinian police officer was killed, in response to which the Palestinians intensified their fire and broadened the front to include attacks on the Israeli army base in Shedma south of Jerusalem.
By the late afternoon, the Palestinians had opened fire on almost every Israeli position near Bethlehem. The main focus of the attacks was the Jerusalem suburb of Gilo, which came under fire from residential buildings in nearby Beit Jalla and Bethlehem. Today's attack on Gilo was more intense than previous ones, with barrages of automatic gunfire aimed at Gilo from several different angles and in broad daylight. The assault lasted for three and a half hours. By a miracle no one was hurt, though bullets hit an elementary school which was in session, along with several apartments and parked cars.
One Gilo resident described suddenly hearing gunfire, and looking out the window to see armed Palestinians shooting towards him from only a hundred metres (yards) away from his office. On Israeli children's television this afternoon, children from Gilo were among the callers to the daily phone-in computer game competition. One of the first reports of the shooting came from a contestant, who said he was watching the show while lying on the floor for fear of flying bullets. The next caller, also from Gilo, was in the middle of her birthday party. Half her class were sheltering in their homes and couldn't show up because it was dangerous to walk in the street..
Diane Suhai runs a day care centre in her Gilo apartment. Early this evening she was talking on the phone when she heard gunfire and ducked. Just then, a bullet slammed into the wall where her head had been seconds earlier. She told the news reporter she now stands to lose her income, as parents are frightened to leave their children in her apartment. She hopes the Jerusalem city council will be able to offer her safer premises for the day care centre, though she has no intention of leaving her home. In a previous attack, a bullet struck her balcony.
Gilo residents were told to stay indoors in back rooms, avoiding any parts of their homes that face Beit Jalla or Bethlehem. Those on the roads were to drive without headlights. Streetlights were turned out and a blackout is in effect. Television reporters hid behind walls and filmed their reports illuminated only by handheld flashlight. In contrast, lights were on in Beit Jalla and Bethlehem.
In response, Israeli troops took up positions on the edge of Gilo and in the valley between Gilo and Beit Jalla, returning fire with heavy machine guns. Once they identified the house which was the source of the heaviest fire, they fired an anti-tank missile at the room in which the gunmen were based. However, the Palestinians continued firing from other rooms and other locations. Eventually attack helicopters were brought in to try to stop the gunfire.
Channel 1's Arab affairs correspondent Ehud Ya'ari described how the Palestinian Fatah Tanzim militiamen purposely take up positions in civilian homes. "Tanzim men come and bang on your door, choose the window they want to shoot from, even if it's the room your kids are sleeping in, and they open fire on Gilo, knowing it will draw fire on innocent civilians in Beit Jalla."
The deliberate use of civilians as cover for military attacks has come to typify Palestinian military operations against Israel. Last night, Palestinians opened fire on the Jewish village of Psagot near Ramallah from inside the offices of the Red Crescent, the Arab affiliate of the Red Cross. In another incident, shots were fired at Psagot from within a Red Crescent ambulance. In both cases, the Israeli army did not return fire so as not to be accused of targeting medical emergency services. There are also indications that the Palestinians have used ambulances to transport weaponry.
In general, the use of civilians is part of the overall Palestinian military strategy. Arafat has learned from his war against Israel in Lebanon that our weakest point is fighting in civilian areas. Israel takes every precaution to avoid harming civilians, both for moral reasons and because of the repercussions. As such, Israel is fighting with its hands tied behind its back, while the Palestinians have no qualms about shooting at Israeli civilians, ambulances, welfare offices, holy sites, or any other target which should be out of bounds according to accepted ethics of war.
This is part of the reason for the escalation in the Bethlehem area, an area with a large Christian population which has generally had peaceful relations with nearby Jewish areas. The Palestinians hope that by placing their snipers in close proximity to civilians, especially Christian civilians, as well as Christian holy sites, Israel will in self-defence accidentally damage churches and inflict civilian casualties in one of Christianity's holiest cities, stirring Christians the world over to come to the Palestinians' defence.
In general, one of the Palestinians' main strategic goals is to draw Israel into attacking civilian areas used as military positions, with the hope that the accidental deaths of Palestinian civilians will demonstrate to the world that the Palestinians need international protection against Israeli "aggression". The Arab states have already begun pushing for United Nations peacekeeping troops to be sent to defend the Palestinians.
Arafat is apparently not satisfied with the terms Israel is offering for a negotiated peace agreement, so he wants to change the rules of engagement. Apparently, Arafat hopes that a war of attrition will force Israel to make an even more generous offer than the unprecedented concessions offered at the Camp David talks in July, concessions Arafat rejected out of hand. In fact, fighting has intensified over the last few days even as Israel has resumed diplomatic contacts with Arafat. Earlier this week, Barak phoned Arafat to ask that he call off the violence. Then, cabinet minister Amnon Lipkin-Shahak met with Arafat along with Barak advisor Yossi Ginosaur. Tonight, despite the huge escalation in the Palestinian offensive and the killing of three Israeli soldiers, cabinet minister Shimon Peres and senior Israeli negotiator Gilad Sher went to Gaza to meet with Arafat in person - though Barak insists they were not negotiating but merely trying to convince Arafat to end the violence. The more desperately our government tries diplomacy, the more the Palestinian attacks intensify.
Frustration is running high in Israel. Who would have imagined that a neighbourhood of Jerusalem could be the target of enemy gunfire for even a day, let alone weeks on end, while the Israeli authorities stand by helplessly? Israel's most severe military responses have involved destroying empty buildings after warning their residents, the Palestinian security forces, who easily found new premises. The Israeli government seems determined not to close the avenue of negotiations, even as it becomes ever clearer that Arafat sees this conflict as his moment of glory, as the means to achieve his political ends. Though Israel and the Palestinian Authority were well on the way to negotiating terms for Palestinian statehood, Arafat would rather hundreds of Palestinians die in a needless but "glorious" war than achieve statehood through peaceful negotiations with Israel. It's hard to be see what Israel's eagerness to return to negotiations will achieve, beyond convincing the Palestinians that violence will gain them further concessions. We do not want war, but neither can we stand by and allow ourselves to be used for Palestinian target practice day after day, week after week.
Who knows what tomorrow will bring? I dread the hourly news reports on the radio and yet I cannot help but listen to them all, alternately saddened by news of more incidents and relieved, but anxious, when the news reader turns to trivial things like whether the budget will be approved and the results of a football match. It's amazing that when this all started the radio stations were on 24-hour news-only emergency broadcasts. Now that we have become used to being attacked day in, day out, regular programming has resumed, though with extended evening news broadcasts.