The peace movement in Israel is gathering momentum again in defiance of expectations. Thousands took part in a rally in Tel Aviv's Rabin Square last night to demand that the government withdraw from the occupied territories even as yet another explosion devastated a shopping centre in a Jewish settlement on the West Bank.
The demonstration was the largest by Israel's peace movement since Ariel Sharon was elected Prime Minister a year ago. It represents another breach in the so-called 'consensus of fear' he has marshalled behind his military solutions for ending the Palestinian intifada.
Peace activists demonstrate in Tel Aviv February 16, 2002. Demonstrators called on Israel to stop its occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, where a Palestinian uprising has been raging for 17 months since peace negotiations ground to a halt. REUTERS/Havakuk Levison
Last night Sari Nusseibeh, a leading Palestinian official, told the rally of 20,000 that Yasser Arafat remained committed to the idea of a Palestinian state living in peace beside Israel.
In January, 52 Israeli reserve officers publicly refused to serve in the occupied territories. Insisting that they were 'raised on Zionism and ready to serve in the defence of Israel', they vowed 'not to continue to fight beyond the Green Line [Israel's pre-1967 border with the West Bank and Gaza] for the purpose of dominating, expelling, starving and humiliating an entire people'.
A month later, their ranks have swelled to 231, with polls showing 26 per cent of the Israeli public supporting them, a colossally high figure in a political culture where the refusal to serve is often equated with treason.
It is not difficult to fathom the cause of Sharon's decline in support. 'No Israeli seriously believed by electing Sharon it would bring peace. But they did believe he would deliver security. He hasn't,' said Lily Galili, who covers the Russian community for the liberal Haaretz .
Instead, according to Israel's chief of police, Shlomo Aharonishky, he has brought 'a year of violence and terror the likes of which we have not seen in the history of the state'.
Last week the Islamist Hamas movement fired two home-made rockets into Israel, despite warnings from Sharon that such an 'escalation' would be deemed 'an act of war'. He responded by dispatching F-16 fighter jets to drop 1,000lb bombs on Gaza City (home to about 500,000 Palestinians) and tanks to reconquer areas in the Gaza Strip controlled by the Palestinian Authority.
The Israeli Defence Minister, Binyamin Ben-Eliezer, pledged that the army would stay until there was no more risk of rocket fire. But 24 hours later the forces left, with officers and politicians admitting the invasions had resulted in neither the capture of those who fired the missiles nor the disabling of their capacity to do so.
On Thursday, Palestinian guerrillas killed three Israeli soldiers in Gaza by blowing up a tank with a roadside bomb, as 'sophisticated' and deadly as those once planted by Hizbollah against Israel in Lebanon, said army officials. In retaliation, Israeli aircraft bombed a Palestinian Authority police post and tanks entered Gaza's Bureij refugee camp, killing two Palestinians and leaving 33 injured, including a four-year-old girl. Within hours a Palestinian rocket was again fired from Gaza into Israel.
Yesterday a leading Hamas activist was killed when his car exploded in the West Bank town of Jenin. Hamas said it was an Israeli assassination and vowed revenge. Hours later two Israelis died and 27 were injured when a suicide bomber exploded his device among diners in a pizza restaurant favoured by teenagers in the settlement of Karnei Shomron, 24 miles north-east of Tel Aviv.
This endless cycle of armed combat is not the only reminder of Lebanon. Last week the Palestinian death toll from the intifada reached 1,000, 248 of whom have been children. The Israeli death toll reached 256. As Israeli analysts noted, this is the same number of Israelis who lost their lives during Israel's post-1985 occupation of southern Lebanon. The difference is the Lebanon war lasted 15 years, and most of the Israeli casualties were soldiers. The intifada has lasted 15 months, with the death toll including 164 Israeli civilians.
If the 'national consensus' behind Sharon is starting to fracture, so too is the consensus of the Israeli peace camp. For years movements like Peace Now - which called last night's demonstration - made full withdrawal from the occupied territories conditional on a peace agreement with the Palestinians.
But many among the protesting reservist officers - as well as new grassroots movements, like 'The Green Line - students for a border', are championing more unilateralist solutions. 'They believe the priority for Israel is to leave the occupied territories, with or without an agreement with the Palestinians,' said Arie Arnon, a leader of Peace Now.
He said the call for a unilateral Israeli withdrawal was gaining ground within the peace movement and Israeli society, akin to the protest movement that helped pull Israel out of Lebanon.
Noam Kuzar, 18, typifies the new generation - the first Israeli soldier to refuse to serve in the occupied territories in the present conflict and one of the youngest, he believes it is time for ordinary Israelis to take action.
© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2002