As signs emerged of splits in Israeli public opinion over the Middle East conflict, Palestinian militants raised the stakes still further yesterday by killing four Israelis in two separate attacks.
In one attack an Israeli policeman – thought to have been a Bedouin Arab – was blown up by a Palestinian who detonated a car bomb near an Israeli road block between Jerusalem and nearby Ma'aleh Adumim, Israel's largest West Bank settlement. The attacker killed himself in the blast.
Later, three Israelis were killed and four soldiers were reportedly injured when a gunman ambushed a convoy on an Israeli-controlled road inside Gaza near Gush Katif, a block of 18 Israeli settlements mid-way down the strip. Initial reports said the guerrilla was also killed.
The attacks are the latest instalment in more than a week of renewed violence. The crisis, and the feeling that no measures over the past 17 months seem to have been effective, have led to the stirring of domestic dissent in Israel levelled at Ariel Sharon, the Prime Minister. This has provided the trapped and isolated Yasser Arafat with the first hint that right-wing political consensus in Israel is finally beginning to crumble.
Pressure on Mr Sharon is growing from the hard right, which wants him to take tougher military measures against the Palestinians, including calls to expel all 3.5 million Arabs from the occupied territories. The newly mobilised, but still small, Israeli left-wing is demanding a total withdrawal by Israel from the occupied territories, a view supported by more than 200 army reservists, who have signed a petition saying they will not serve in the West Bank and Gaza.
The internal debate widened yesterday when a group of retired generals and senior ex- officials from the Mossad and Shin Bet security services announced that they were launching a publicity campaign calling for a complete withdrawal from the Gaza Strip, where 5,000 Jewish settlers live amid more than 1 million Palestinians and yet control a fifth of the land.
The group, members of a mainly centrist 1,000-member organisation called the Council for Peace and Security, are also demanding a partial pull-out from the West Bank, chiefly involving the evacuation of the smaller, hard-to-defend isolated Jewish settlements.
In all, 213,000 Israeli settlers live in the West Bank, mostly within blocs of settlements. They enjoy support from the Israeli right, especially Mr Sharon, who has championed their cause throughout his career and continues to allow settlement building in contravention of international law and despite a promise to his Labour coalition partners to put them on hold.
The Peace and Security Council also wants Mr Sharon to resume negotiations with the Palestinians, move to an early recognition of a Palestinian state and to drop his demand for seven days of total quiet before implementing a ceasefire.
A spokesman for Mr Sharon, Raanan Gissin, said the Israeli Cabinet would meet this week to consider a strategy for dealing with the violence.