Israeli Public Frustrated With Conflict

After almost 17 months of fighting and no end in sight, Israelis seem to be growing impatient and despondent over the deadlock in their war of attrition with the Palestinians.

"I feel a lot of rage," said Kobi Tebu, a 20-year-old soldier in Jerusalem, after a weekend that left seven Israelis and five Palestinians dead — and hobbled some key symbols of Israeli domination, including Merkava tanks, roadblocks, Jewish settlements and a feared undercover unit.

"I think that the violence will continue for a long time."

The weekend's bad news for Israelis began Thursday night, when three soldiers were killed in Gaza when a bomb destroyed one of their reputedly super-protected Merkava-3 tanks. On Friday a soldier was shot dead at a West Bank roadblock — underscoring the vulnerability of those who man the scores of roadblocks that attempt to restrict the movement of militants and make life a misery for masses of ordinary people. On Saturday night, two teen-agers were killed when a suicide bomber blew himself up in a West Bank settlement — the first such attack.

The greatest indignity might have been Friday's death of Lt. Col. Eyal Weiss, commander of the Duvdevan unit whose members specialize in entering Palestinian areas in disguise to arrest suspected militants. He died when his troops were destroying a suspect's house in a West Bank village and a wall collapsed on top of him. Many saw it as a reflection of something gone badly awry.

"This cannot continue," wrote Amnon Dankner, editor of the mass circulation Maariv newspaper, in a front-page commentary that was echoed in most other newspapers as well. "If there is a policy — military or diplomatic, tactical or strategic — let it come now," he wrote.

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's year-old government has tried killing dozens of suspected terrorists, invading Palestinian autonomous areas to root out suspects and bombarding Palestinian Authority installations to compel action against militant groups.

Nothing has worked, and diplomacy seems stuck as well.

Sharon opposed predecessor Ehud Barak's far-reaching peace offers, and wants the Palestinians to suffice with little more than the 40 percent of the West Bank and Gaza they control today. The Palestinians rejected this, and in any case Sharon has refused to resume peace talks until violence stops.

Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's aides say they can do little when they are under attack and closures.

Israeli officials are calling on the people to hold fast. Arafat "draws encouragement from what he perceives as cracks in Israel's inner strength," warned Defense Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer, referring to a recent letter by some 200 reserve soldiers who said they'd refuse call-ups in the West Bank and Gaza.

In a weekend poll in Maariv, 49 percent said the government has "lost control" of the security situation, compared to 44 percent who disagreed.

The poll of 590 people, with a 4.5 percent error margin, also showed majority support for contradictory radical solutions: two-thirds supported a unilateral pullout from Palestinian areas, while a plurality — 47 to 46 percent — supported destroying the Palestinian authority. Ominously, 35 percent said they supported expelling the Palestinians from the West Bank and Gaza.

Underpinning the frustrations is a realization by many Israelis that unless they find a way to disengage from the West Bank and Gaza, these areas and Israel will meld into a single country in which Arabs will soon be the majority.

"Get out of the territories!" chanted thousands gathered in Tel Aviv Saturday.

The contradictions were evident also in Karnei Shomron, the settlement targeted Saturday.

"We have to strike a hard blow," said acting mayor Assi Levy. "Let the [Palestinian] civilians have it, let the terrorists have it, let the leadership have it."

Haim Cohen, whose six children and 11 grandchildren all live in area settlements, agreed there should be much harsher reprisals. But Cohen also said he'd be ready to leave in exchange for compensation.

"It would make it easier for Israel, and save lives too," he said. "A lot of people in the area feel exactly the same."