Mounting Casualties Are Israel's Weak Spot

A rising Israeli casualty count was a key factor in the Israeli government's decision two years ago to pull troops out of Lebanon, and there are signs that heavy losses may influence its military policy again.

With every attack on Israeli civilians by Palestinian militants, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon comes under intense pressure to take decisive action, with a confused and shaken public expecting the government to both intensify military strikes against targets in the West Bank and Gaza Strip and to negotiate an immediate cease-fire.

In launching their uprising nearly 18 months ago, Palestinian militants said they were inspired by Lebanese guerrillas, who drove Israeli troops out in what Israelis described as a "war of attrition."

"We learned from the Lebanon experience how important the human element was to the Israelis, because the Jews are few and if they lose more and more, everything will change for them," said Abu Mujahed, a leader of the Al Aqsa Brigades, a militia linked to Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's Fatah movement.

Hundreds of Palestinians have volunteered for suicide missions — whether bombings or shootings — after observing the effect such attacks have had on Israeli society, said Abu Mujahed, who uses a nom de guerre.

Since September 2000, dozens of suicide bombers have targeted Israeli civilians in shopping malls, restaurants and city streets, while gunman have picked off soldiers in the West Bank and Gaza, triggering waves of tearful Israeli burials.

In all, 1,161 people have been killed on the Palestinian side and 348 people on the Israeli side since the fighting broke out. In the previous 1987-1993 Palestinian uprising, the number of Israeli casualties was much lower compared to the deaths on the Palestinian side.

"We don't like to see our people killed," said Israeli counter-terrorism expert Yoram Schweitzer, stating what would appear to be an obvious fact, but one that helped force Israeli troops to pull out of Lebanon in May 2000.

The supreme Jewish religious value is pikuach nefesh, or preserving life. All other commandments are secondary. The concept has filtered through Israeli society, Orthodox and secular, and analysts say military commanders worry that it is undermining their ability to fight, since their first priority must be protecting their soldiers and not winning a battle.

This works to the Palestinians' advantage, said Palestinian analyst Salah Abdel Shafi. Israelis are not a fighting society, he said. Rather, they "are used to going shopping and going to restaurants and to have a certain standard of living ... the Palestinians are hitting in the heart of Israel, making Israelis insecure. This is probably a factor in this battle," he said.

Israelis make little distinction between dead soldiers and civilians. Israeli officials refer to soldiers as "our children." Parents and fellow soldiers alike weep over their open graves. At one point, a senior Israeli army officer reportedly instructed soldiers not to cry at funerals, because it's bad for morale.

Israel's peace movement, paralyzed by the breakdown of talks in 2001 — after the Palestinians failed to accept an offer for a state in Gaza, more than 90 percent of the West Bank and a foothold in Jerusalem — is now calling for a unilateral Israeli withdrawal from the Palestinian territories. A small, but growing number of Israeli reservists are refusing army service in the territories.

The same scenario unfolded over Israel's occupation of south Lebanon.

Israel's 18-year occupation was designed to keep Hezbollah guerrillas away from border communities. However, the guerrilla war generated constant headlines about dead Israeli soldiers, TV reports showing relatives wailing at funerals and a protest movement called "Four Mothers," founded by mothers of soldiers serving in Lebanon. It started small, but ended up forcing the Israeli government to pull the soldiers out.

The popular uproar over Lebanon was over an average of 30 soldiers killed each year. In the past month alone, 74 Israelis have died, including 29 soldiers, while 237 Palestinians, including many attackers, have been killed.

Linda Ben-Zvi was a leader of the Four Mothers movement, which is recreating itself now, along the same lines, to try to generate public support for an Israeli pullout from the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

And with no peaceful resolution in sight, polls show growing support for a unilateral pullout from much of the territory, where 200,000 Jewish settlers live in 150 settlements.

"There are many who feel we are being attacked because we are occupying someone else's land," Ben-Zvi said.