The Passover Eve Massacre in Netanya, in which a suicide bomber killed 22 Jews who were sitting down to a festive dinner, stretched Israeli tolerance beyond breaking point. The right-wing Likud Prime Minister, Ariel Sharon, could finally do what he had wanted, but hesitated, to do all along.
He has dispatched his armoured and infantry forces into a war they know they cannot afford to lose. By yesterday, rightly or wrongly, they believed they were winning. If so, they would then try to negotiate a ceasefire from a position of strength.
The immediate aim is to destroy Yasser Arafat's security apparatus, which the Israelis claim has become a command centre of a Palestinian offensive that killed 124 Israelis and tourists, civilians and soldiers, in March alone. After that, the army is expected to train its guns on private-enterprise militias such as Hamas, Islamic Jihad and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine.
The veteran defence analyst Ze'ev Schiff wrote this week: "The orders are to leave no place connected with terror unoccupied by the army. The prevailing mood is this time the gloves are off."
Mr Sharon tried this on a smaller scale in early March, but this time the army has been deployed for a long stay and will fan across far more of the West Bank – and perhaps eventually the Gaza Strip. Some 20,000 reservists have been called up to fighting units – not just because the standing, largely conscript, army is weary, but because they will be needed. Spokesmen claim more than 90 per cent of those summoned reported for duty.
Military experts say this operation has been planned more thoroughly. The government has instructed the army to exercise care and discipline, to work within parameters defined by the political leadership. It is a high-risk strategy that could be undermined by a trigger-happy soldier or a misdirected shell. But it is one Israel now feels it has to pursue.
The first priority is to break the wave of suicide bombings. The planners argue that if the army entrenches itself in a Palestinian town or refugee camp, no terrorist attacks emanate from it. They cite Ramallah as an example. The hope is that, as more centres are neutralised, the daily bombings will abate.
Ramallah was targeted first because it is the seat of Mr Arafat's Palestinian administration and the power base of his Fatah movement. A position paper distributed last week by the army spokesman defined it as the "axis of terrorism". Intelligence sources claim that documents captured this week from offices in Mr Arafat's besieged compound reinforce that diagnosis. They are said by the Israelis to provide evidence that the Al-Aqsa Brigades, which are affiliated to Al-Fatah, received their orders and funding (with forged Israeli currency) from the Palestinian leader's headquarters.
Al-Aqsa and their allies in Fatah's Tanzim militia have taken credit for more and more of the recent bombings and roadside shootings. One letter, dated September 2001 and released yesterday by the Israeli army with its [the army's] translation into English, specifically asked Mr Arafat to send the money for an explosive belt to be worn by a suicide bomber.
The Palestinian information minister, Yasser Abed Rabbo, dismissed it. "This talk is baseless and worthless," he said.
Israel is not trying to assassinate high-profile commanders who are political as well as military figures. The Preventive Security headquarters, near Ramallah, came under attack on Tuesday because wanted men had taken refuge there. Five Hamas operatives, accused of sending bombers into Jerusalem, Haifa and other Israeli targets, were among those who finally surrendered.
Yet the security service chief, Jibril Rajoub, is still free to move around the West Bank because, for all his villainous looks and thuggish reputation, he is a man who has negotiated with Israel and remains a candidate to do so again.
So, in the long run, is Marwan Barghouti, the fugitive Tanzim commander. Israel would like to capture and interrogate him but not to kill him. He has often told Israeli interviewers that, in the end, Israel will have to negotiate with the likes of him. Both Colonel Rajoub and Mr Barghouti are aspiring leaders of Fatah's next generation, the kind who might yet be strong and independent enough to deliver a compromise agreement.
Israel has no such illusions about Mr Arafat. His rejection, until it was too late, of the American ceasefire plan has written him out of their script. A senior Israeli diplomat said last night: "All the indications were that Arafat was not ready to stop the violence. On the contrary, he allows and even encourages the terror to continue."
At American insistence, Israel has agreed – so far – not to kill or expel him. The Bush administration gave Mr Sharon a nod and a wink for his offensive, so long as it did not jeopardise the stability of "moderate" Arab regimes and their acquiescence in a planned assault on Saddam Hussein. That is Mr Arafat's shield.
In conversation with foreign mediators, Mr Sharon has suggested that he would let them take Mr Arafat out of the country – on condition that he didn't come back. Privately, Israelis acknowledge that to be a public relations ploy. The Palestinian leader has made it clear that he will not leave without cast-iron guarantees he can return.Reuse content