February 2002 has undoubtedly been Ariel Sharon's toughest month in power since his overwhelming election victory just over a year ago. A string of Palestinian military successes has created a climate of near panic in the Israeli press.
A large roadside bomb destroyed a Merkava tank, and an officer from the undercover Duvdevan Unit was killed by falling masonry while overseeing the demolition of a Palestinian house. Then six Israeli soldiers were ambushed and killed at a checkpoint and their Palestinian attackers got away. The Israeli army has responded by attempting to batter the Palestinian civilian population into submission. As the Israeli daily Yediot Aharanot pointed out, the payload of the Palestinian militias' home-made Qassam 2 rocket weighs in at 3 kilogrammes while the Israeli army pounds Palestinian cities with 3 ton bombs.
At the same time, serious cracks in the unity of the Israeli army have begun to emerge. Soldiers from reserve units signed an open letter refusing to serve in the Occupied Territories. Their petition stated bluntly, 'We will no longer fight beyond the green line with the purpose of controlling, expelling, starving and humiliating an entire people.' On 1 February Ami Ayalon, a former head of Israel's notorious secret police Shin Bet, told a television interviewer that he was concerned that not enough Israeli soldiers were refusing to carry out 'blatantly illegal orders'. For the first time since the outbreak of the Intifada in September 2000 the Israeli peace movement has mobilised thousands in a series of demonstrations calling for withdrawal from the Occupied Territories.
Economic problems have hurt Sharon's popularity as well. Unemployment is rising, the tourism industry is facing collapse, and squabbles over welfare cuts nearly wrecked Sharon's budget. Some commentators have begun to argue that Israelis have a clear choice between occupation or economic recovery. An editorial in the influential Israeli daily Ha'aretz argued that, 'By promising it can have the territories as well as peace, security and prosperity, the government is deceiving the public.' Meanwhile, Sharon's rating in the polls has fallen dramatically. According to figures released on 22 February only 54 percent of Israelis now think Sharon is a credible Prime Minister while 61 percent criticised his handling of the Intifada.
The pressure on Sharon has opened up a space for those who oppose him. In late February the Council for Peace and Security, a group of reserve generals and security officials, launched a campaign for unilateral withdrawal from the Occupied Territories. Meanwhile, high level negotiations with moderate Palestinian officials such as Abu Ala have continued. The main channel for these talks has been Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres. Although Peres' Labour Party is still divided, a growing number of Israelis support his position of returning to negotiations. A recent opinion poll also showed 57 percent of Israelis were in favour of evacuating settlements in the Gaza Strip, while 59 percent supported at least a partial evacuation of settlements in the West Bank.
Clearly an Israeli withdrawal from the Occupied Territories would relieve some pressure on the Palestinian population. Yet even if the withdrawal also meant evacuation of some of the settlements this solution would still fall far short of a just peace.