Israelis have always owned and carried guns. Now, with the rise in the number of attacks by Palestinians, they are contemplating using them. A recent opinion poll said 85 per cent of Israelis live in daily fear of attack by an Arab, indicating the highest level of anxiety for many years.
In the latest attack yesterday a Palestinian stabbed and wounded six Israelis in a schoolyard in west Jerusalem - five students and the principal. Angry Israelis demonstrated and threw stones at Palestinian cars and called for Yitzhak Rabin, the Prime Minister, to resign. Mr Rabin, who returned to Israel early from a trip to the United States, was assessing the strife in Gaza when the Jerusalem attack happened. But also in the Gaza Strip yesterday, four Palestinians - two of them children - were shot dead by Israeli troops.
That the number of attacks on Jews by Palestinians has risen in recent months is not in dispute. But the level of anxiety appears vastly out of proportion to the statistical chance of being attacked. Out of an Israeli population of about 5 million, 12 Jews were killed by Palestinians last year, compared to 502 Israeli deaths in road accidents in the same period. The numbers have risen recently, with 11 Israeli deaths since the December deportations of more than 400 Palestinians, compared with 68 Palestinians killed by Israelis. But the chances of becoming a victim of violent attack are still far less than the chances of being held up by gunmen on the streets of New York, or even London.
Most of the more deadly attacks being carried out today by Palestinian militants are more daring and well planned than Israelis are used to. The low-level, haphazard street uprising that was the intifada ceased to be threatening to most Israelis inside the Green Line. But now, armed Palestinian cells have sucessfully ambushed, killed, and kidnapped fully armed and well-trained Israeli soldiers and they have done it inside Israel proper.
Adding to the fear is an increase in spontaneous Palestinian violence, usually stabbings, carried out by young men. These killings are often bloody and entirely random. In a typical incident, a young Palestinian who stabbed a Jew in the northern town of Afula recently, said later he was frustrated because he had failed his exams. Others have complained that they have recently lost jobs. Both sorts of violence are associated in Israeli eyes with so-called 'Islamic fundamentalism'. Mr Rabin fuelled the fear of Islamic militancy when he deported 400 alleged Islamic militants in December. In the uproar that followed, he was forced to justify his move by portraying the group and their associates as one of the greatest threats the State of Israel has known.
The fear generated by the latest attacks is intensified by the readiness of Mr Rabin's opponents to play up the danger at every point, with a view to exposing the Prime Minister's failures on the security front. Thousands of Palestinians cross the Green Line to work in Israel proper every day. Now many are viewed with suspicion. They are all potentially perpetrators of what the Israelis call 'Arab terror'.
This fear is having widespread consequences, adding a new word to the lexicon of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: severance. With the peace process faltering, the demand now is for short-term emergency measures - to take effect whatever happens in the peace process. The most common demand is for Israel to be closed off or severed from the occupied territories, particularly Gaza.
The likelihood of unilateral Israeli withdrawal from Gaza remains distant. But politicians of left and right are supporting the idea of banning Palestinian employees from working in Israel: of 'political separation'. There are even ideas for providing income support for Palestinians who lose work in Israel and are forced to stay in the occupied territories.
In this atmosphere the chances of compromise by either side in the peace process are being rapidly reduced. Analysts say without a political solution Israeli fears will continue to escalate, increasingly whipped up by the political in-fighting. Joseph Alpher, of Israel's Jaffee Centre for Strategic Studies, commented: 'Without a breakthrough in the peace process we will see a worsening ethnic conflict, feeding on itself.'
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