Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is coming under increasing pressure to define his strategy towards the Palestinians, following a series of attacks on Israeli military targets and settlements in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip. The most dramatic of these was a 19 February assault on a checkpoint outside Ramallah in which six Israeli soldiers were killed, with no casualties on the Palestinian side. This attack provoked massive Israeli retaliation over the following two days, in which some 20 Palestinians were killed. Sharon has indicated that, despite the ferocity of these Israeli operations, he is concerned to leave the way open for fresh peace talks with the Palestinian leadership.
The latest Palestinian operations appear to indicate a shift in tactics on the part of the various armed groups in the West Bank and Gaza towards hitting targets inside the occupied territories. The latest round of attacks included the destruction of an Israeli Merkava 3 tank in the Gaza Strip on 14 February. The tank had been lured to an area where an 80-kilo bomb had been buried. Three soldiers were killed.
Sharon was scheduled to deliver a speech to the nation on the evening of 21 February, outling the government's policy towards the conflict. Right-wing members of his cabinet have been urging him to take more extreme measures, including the expulsion of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and the reoccupation of parts of the West Bank and Gaza now under Palestinian Authority (PA) control. However, such steps would be likely to split the coalition, and galvanise the small, but growing, minority of Israelis who favour an unconditional withdrawal from the occupied territories.
Sharon gave a hint on the eve of his address that he would hold back from extreme measures. He told a gathering of Jewish organisations that if the PA met five security conditions, Israel would be prepared to 'give a great deal' in peace negotiations. The conditions would entail the PA cracking down more effectively than in the past on groups responsible for attacks on Israelis. However, Sharon made no mention of his earlier condition of seven days of complete calm before talks could resume. 'We expect 100 per cent effort from the Authority, and if it does that, we will not be pedantic about every isolated lunatic,' he said.