JERUSALEM – On both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian divide, the language of grief has a haunting familiarity — and an eerily similar element of disbelief.
An Israeli mother, Aviva Nachmani, described her nightmarish search for her children, lost in the chaos of a suicide bombing that killed 10 people. "I hunted for them like a madwoman — I just screamed and screamed," she said. She finally found them alive.
A Palestinian farmer, Hatem Abu Teir, struggled for words after Israeli troops stormed his village in the Gaza Strip, raining heavy machine-gun fire on fields and homes and killing at least 16 people, including one of his cousins. "A very bad dream," he said finally, "mixed with blood and the sound of pain."
Even by the grim standards set in 17 unbroken months of violence, the seven days that began with a suicide bombing in the narrow streets of a synagogue-filled neighborhood of Jerusalem and ended with a hail of tank shells in Palestinian shantytowns across the West Bank and Gaza Strip left both sides wondering how much worse it can possibly get.
More than 100 Palestinians and more than 30 Israelis died — the highest toll during any week since the conflict erupted, in the double digits every day. The week also saw the largest number of fatalities in a single day, 45 on Friday alone. And no day passed without children, sometimes several of them, numbering among the dead or injured.
Five children from one family, the Nechmads, died in last Saturday's Jerusalem suicide bombing, and three Palestinian children were killed with their mother in a missile attack in the West Bank town of Ramallah that was meant for their father, a leader of the militant Islamic movement Hamas. One of them, 13-year-old Bara Abu Kweik, was buried with a favorite schoolbook.
It wasn't only the sheer number of deaths that generated shock. The week also saw a shattering of taboos, a departure from some of the unwritten rules that had governed even this most disorderly of conflicts.
Israel's Prime Minister Ariel Sharon showed his willingness to unleash both troops and battlefield weaponry — tanks, helicopter gunships, warplanes — in the teeming confines of refugee camps scattered across the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
Until late last month, Israel had refrained from incursions into the camps — in part because they are a dangerous quagmire for its own troops, and also because it is nearly impossible to avoid hurting and killing civilians during military operations in these shantytowns, which are so cramped and crowded that alleyways are no wider than the span of a person's arms.
All week long in the refugee camps, Palestinian children wept in terror as deafening explosions rang out and troops battered down doors in house-to-house searches in the dead of night. Israel says it wanted to show once and for all that gunmen and terrorists could not find haven in the camps.
On the Palestinian side, lone attackers struck with ruthlessness and ingenuity at targets laden with symbolic significance for Israel: a religious seminary at a Jewish settlement in Gaza that also served as a training ground for military officers; an all-night club in Tel Aviv, seemingly a world away from the battlefields of the West Bank and Gaza, which was a gathering spot for an Israeli elite of fashion models, soccer stars and talk-show hosts.
The attacks' increasingly methodical nature chilled Israelis, as they were meant to do. The gunman who infiltrated the Gaza settlement and killed five seminary students first cut a perfect, neat square in the perimeter fence; a sniper who killed seven Israeli soldiers and four settlers at a West Bank roadblock was armed only with an antiquated single-shot rifle, but nonetheless got off one lethally accurate shot after another.
Something changed, too, in the way the two sides talked about the conflict, baldly articulating truths only hinted at before.
Sharon announced that his policy was to batter the Palestinians into submission, striking "without letup" until they lost the will to fight. Palestinian militants loyal to Yasser Arafat, some of whom had mixed socially with Israelis during the days of the peace process, now talked openly about how their familiarity with Israeli habits helped them to choose targets.
"Many of us know Israel very well, and know the restaurants, cinemas and theaters," said Mahmoud Titi, a militia leader who warned in an interview that deadlier attacks lay ahead.
Each side seemed determined to impress upon the other that nothing was sacred. Palestinians charged that Israelis were deliberately targeting medical workers — more than a dozen of whom were hurt or killed in the week's fighting — and letting wounded civilians die as they blocked access by ambulances to areas of fierce fighting. Israel in turn accused Palestinians of trying to use ambulances as cover for attacks, and for transporting fighters and weapons.
Palestinian security installations such as police stations have been the principal targets in fierce and wide-ranging Israeli strikes. But stray hits also wrecked homes and businesses. A U.N.-run school for the blind in Gaza was reduced to rubble last week.
The losses were large and small. When thunderous booms heralded an Israeli raid on a police building in the West Bank town of Nablus one day last week, a Palestinian street vendor began carefully packing up the vases and glass figurines that were his wares. Then a woman fleeing in fear, clutching the hands of her two little boys, knocked over a whole shelf of his glassware. She sobbed as she apologized.
For both sides, the piled-on quality of catastrophic events became numbing. Israelis as a rule listen obsessively to news bulletins, but in a Jerusalem restaurant one night, patrons first fell silent, then cheered when a waiter pointedly turned down the radio. So many ambushes and firefights have been taking place between midnight and dawn that by the time most people wake up the morning, the day's accumulation of deaths has already begun.
At the week's end, a glimmer of hope emerged with word from Sharon that Israel would drop its demand for a week of calm before it would consider implementing a truce. U.S. envoy Anthony Zinni was to return for talks with both sides, and Vice President Dick Cheney was traveling to the region as well this week.
But many ordinary Israelis and Palestinians saw no way out of the spiral of violence.
"Maybe we survived tonight," said Gaza schoolteacher Suzanne Qudeah, shaken by an Israeli raid of her village. "But who knows what the future will bring for us and our children?"