Israel 'adrift' as Sharon's popularity falls

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The Independent Online

David Damelin, a 29-year-old reserve lieutenant, phoned his mother from a checkpoint north of Ramallah on Saturday. 'We feel like sitting ducks,' he told her. Barely 24 hours later, a lone Palestinian sniper shot him dead along with six other soldiers and three civilians.

It was the army's third major setback in less than a month. A roadside bomb blew up an Israeli-made Merkava tank, supposedly the best-protected in the world, in the Gaza Strip with the loss of three crewmen. Five days later, Palestinian gunmen killed six soldiers at a strongpoint west of Ramallah.

This weekend's twin disasters – the checkpoint shooting and the suicide bombing, which killed 10 civilians in a Jerusalem religious neighbourhood – has deepened Israelis' sense of drift. They complain that the Prime Minister, Ariel Sharon, has no answer, military or diplomatic, to the Palestinian war of attrition.

A poll published in the daily paper Ma'ariv on Friday logged 61 per cent of Israelis believing that Mr Sharon had failed to deliver on his promise of security. Still more, 68 per cent, thought the situation was worse than when he won office a year ago, and only 27 per cent expected it to improve in the year ahead.

Military commentators fret that Israel is losing the initiative. The Palestinians, they say, have the skill and the motivation to keep finding weak spots. The roadblocks – guarding entry points from the West Bank into Israel and protecting settlements – have proved the most vulnerable.

They are isolated, visible and open to surprise attack. "Any passing Palestinian could observe us and collect information,"a reserve soldier who survived Sunday's sniper fire protested afterwards to his regional commander.

According to defence sources, the army had proposed removing the fatal checkpoint, but relented after right-wing politicians insisted that it was needed to protect their settler constituents. In some cases, an infantry squad is watching over a tiny community of two or three families – and resenting it. One soldier lamented on Sunday: "They just set up a roadblock, place some soldiers there, and God be with us."

As the intifada drags on, the army is making more and more use of reservists. The standing army needs a break, needs time for training. But the reservists are older men, with minds of their own. They have to be convinced that it is worth risking their lives.

David Damelin, killed by Sunday's sniper, considered signing a letter by 50 reserve officers refusing to serve in the occupied territories. One of them, Guy Grossman, killed a man with a rock who threatened his life while on patrol in a refugee camp. "That is a price I am no longer willing to pay," he told the Jerusalem Report magazine. "I shouldn't have been anywhere near him. I shouldn't be occupying his home."

In the end, according to his mother, Lieutenant Damelin decided that the middle of a war was not the time to opt out. He paid the price.