After four years of fighting between Israelis and Palestinians, Israel has established dominance on the battlefield, sharply reduced loss of life among its soldiers and civilians, and advanced its own agenda for the West Bank and Gaza Strip in the absence of negotiations to bring peace, according to officials and analysts from both sides.
In a pivotal shift in the conflict, Israel has crippled the effectiveness of the Palestinian militants' primary strategic weapon -- the suicide bomber -- with frequent military operations in the Palestinian territories, assassinations of dozens of militant leaders, improved intelligence, and construction of a massive barrier through and around the West Bank. At the same time, however, Israel's reliance on military options also has killed Palestinian civilians and inflicted hardships on Palestinian communities.
Since the uprising erupted in September 2000, approximately 2,800 Palestinians and about 1,000 Israelis have been killed, according to records compiled by The Post. About 27,200 Palestinians and 5,700 Israelis have been wounded.
Moreover, the Palestinian death toll has increased more dramatically than the Israeli toll. When Palestinian suicide attacks were at their peak two years ago, an average of two Palestinians were killed for each Israeli. So far this year, five Palestinians have been killed for each Israeli.
The trend has continued during the past week in the Gaza Strip, where Israel launched a military operation on Sept. 28 to thwart Palestinian rocket and mortar attacks on Israeli targets. Continued fighting Monday raised the death toll to 74 Palestinians in northern Gaza, according to Palestinian medical officials. Five Israelis have been killed in northern Gaza.
Violence also continued Monday in the West Bank, where an Israeli policeman and two Palestinians died in a gun battle in Ramallah.
The conflict -- which entered its fifth year on Sept. 28 -- has also divided both societies internally. Israelis question whether their country is losing its moral compass because of its tactics in the Palestinian territories. Growing numbers of Palestinian leaders recognize how seriously suicide bombings against Israeli civilians have set back their cause.
"Israel's victory has come at a very high price," said Michael Oren, a prominent Israeli historian and senior fellow at the Shalem Center, an Israeli think tank whose members primarily represent hawkish views of the conflict. "It comes in terms of Israel's deepening isolation and vilification, the danger of sanctions, and tension in Israeli society -- to say nothing of the deaths of hundreds of people."
Today no peace process is being pursued, and the three primary players in any attempt to resolve the conflict -- Israel, the Palestinians and the United States -- have abandoned fundamental commitments to bringing about peace, according to representatives of each.
The United States, seen as the critical power broker by both Israel and the Palestinians, is engaged in presidential elections and the continued fighting in Iraq and has given up most serious efforts at mediation. Israel has not controlled the steady growth of Jewish settlements in the Palestinian territories, and the Palestinian Authority has done little to stop attacks against Israel or implement security reforms, officials and analysts say.
The Palestinian leader, Yasser Arafat, has "no vision, no strategies, no policies," said Abdul Jawad Salah, an independent member of the Palestinian Legislative Council. Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia has resigned or threatened to resign numerous times in a continuing power struggle with Arafat that has contributed to a climate of political and security chaos in the Palestinian territories. Militant organizations have attacked and kidnapped Palestinian Authority officials to protest Arafat's refusal to embrace internal reforms.
Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, on the other hand, is taking advantage of the Palestinians' political stalemate and Israel's overwhelming military superiority to chart his own course -- planning a withdrawal of troops and settlers from the Gaza Strip while consolidating Israel's hold on the West Bank by building a fence around the territory and permitting steady growth of Jewish settlements there.
Despite international condemnation and Israel's pledge to freeze the growth of settlements, the number of settlers in the Palestinian territories has risen by about 39,000 since the start of the uprising, or intifada, four years ago, according to the Israeli Interior Ministry. Over the same period, the Israeli government has issued tenders for the construction of more than 6,500 new housing units in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, anti-settlement groups report.
"Ariel Sharon knows exactly what he wants and is working to achieve this every day in his own way," said Uri Avnery, head of the Israeli peace group Gush Shalom. "He thinks the losses are negligible compared to the aim he's set for himself."
One of the most dramatic shifts in the conflict has been in day-to-day loss of life. Fewer Israelis are being killed but more Palestinians are losing their lives. In the first nine months of this year, 478 Palestinians and 90 Israelis were killed, compared with 392 Palestinians and 171 Israelis killed during the same period last year.
A key reason for the sharp decline in Israeli deaths has been Israel's increasing ability to stop Palestinian suicide bombers. So far this year, 13 suicide bombers have hit Israeli targets. In all of 2003 there were 44 suicide bombings and in 2002 there were 61.
According to figures provided by the Israel military, two out of three bombers reached their targets in 2001. This year the ratio has fallen to one in nine.
"The reason we don't have [as many] Israeli casualties is because we are successful in fighting terror," said Gideon Meir, a senior official at the Israeli Foreign Ministry. "We are pinpointing more and more terrorists."
Palestinian militant groups, under pressure from Egyptian mediators and many senior Palestinian political leaders to curb their violence, are also making fewer attempts to dispatch suicide bombers, despite public opinion surveys showing that Palestinians overwhelmingly support continuing the attacks. Thus far this year, 92 potential bombers were dispatched compared with 229 in 2003, according to Israeli military figures.
Palestinians and an increasing number of Israelis and international organizations contend that Israel's military efforts to crush Palestinian militant groups have caused excessive loss of life and property to civilians and subjected an entire population to severe hardship. Both President Bush and Secretary of State Colin L. Powell have said that Israel must end its "daily humiliation" of Palestinians.
In the past year, the Israeli military has increased the demolition of Palestinian houses, razing of farmlands and destruction of olive groves. Since the uprising began, the Israeli military has demolished 2,751 homes -- nearly 40 percent of them in the first eight months of this year, according to the U.N. Relief and Works Agency. It has uprooted or burned 382,695 olive trees -- 30 percent of them this year, according to the Palestinian Ministry of Agriculture.
Israel contends, at least in some cases, that the olive trees are used as cover by Palestinian militants to fire rockets. Other trees have been removed to make way for the West Bank barrier. Israel routinely destroys homes belonging to relatives of suicide bombers.
Palestinian cities in the West Bank have become isolated from one another by 659 checkpoints, roadblocks, trenches and earthen walls maintained by the Israeli military. Palestinians are often forbidden to drive on major thoroughfares.
As a result, Israel has been threatened with international boycotts, economic sanctions and divestiture. In July, leaders of the Presbyterian Church in the United States voted overwhelmingly to begin "selective divestment in multinational corporations operating in Israel." In August, the 100-plus-member Non-Aligned Movement adopted a resolution calling upon members to ban the import of goods produced in Jewish settlements. Two weeks ago, a nongovernmental conference meeting at the United Nations drafted a plan for sanctions against Israel if it does not dismantle settlements and the West Bank barrier.
In an effort to head off the prospect of sanctions, Israeli Attorney General Menachem Mazuz recently recommended that the government consider applying the Fourth Geneva Convention to the West Bank and Gaza Strip, formally acknowledging that they are occupied territories.
Any such move would be a sharp reversal of Israeli policy. For decades, Israel has rejected applying the Geneva Convention -- which forbids the transfer of civilians to an occupied territory -- to areas it captured in the 1967 war, arguing that they are "disputed territories" that were not sovereign before the war.
Researchers Hillary Claussen, Samuel Sockol, Ian Deitch and Soufian Taha contributed to this report.