Wednesday, 12 March 2003

Violence in the shadows

What impact will the coming war in Iraq have on the long-running one between Israel and Palestine?

We're all so fixated with the Middle East war that's about to begin, we've stopped looking at the one that never seems to end. But the conflict between Palestinians and Israelis has not disappeared just because we're no longer paying attention. It's still pressing on, stealing lives and breaking hearts every single day.

In the last couple of months alone, Israel has killed more than 150 Palestinians - dozens in the last fortnight. In the same period, Palestinians have made more than 100 attempts on Israeli civilian lives; all failed, until last week's Haifa bus bombing, which killed 17. Take yesterday as a random, typical day in the life of the conflict. Israel killed three Palestinians in Gaza, discovering the bodies of two of them next to knapsacks containing pipe bombs. Meanwhile, an Israeli soldier was killed while on patrol in Hebron. Each side will find it easy to dismiss the deaths of the other: those two men were "terrorists," that one was an "occupier". But they were all people and now they are dead.

So what's been going in this most wearily protracted of conflicts while the world's been looking the other way? And what impact might the coming war on Iraq have on the long-running one between Israel and Palestine?

The first answer is plenty. Israel has a new government, for one thing. The heart of it is still Ariel Sharon, though with his Likud bloc now much expanded and joined by some new partners. Internally, this new coalition may actually bring some much-needed progressive reform to the country: for the first time in decades the ultra-orthodox parties are not in government, handing the militantly anti-clerical Shinui party a rare chance to separate religion and state.

Externally, there's much less cause for optimism. Sharon's new government includes two hard right parties, ideologically set against any compromise with the Palestinians. And the new administration's first acts have hardly been encouraging. Where once Israel made only brief raids into Gaza - targeting a suspected terrorist here, bombing a Hamas building there - now they seem to be digging in.

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