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Intifada slides toward war

The Israeli army attacked a Palestinian refugee camp yesterday in retaliation for earlier mortar fire.

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Israeli tanks, bulldozers and helicopters attacked a Palestinian refugee camp in Gaza early yesterday morning, retaliating for mortar fire and underscoring Israel's increasingly tough strong-arm strategy.

The Israeli incursion was the largest, possibly the first into Palestinian territory and a major escalation in the ongoing conflict.

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is now hitting Palestinian targets harder, faster, and more intensely, while using the cudgel of blunt rhetoric to convey Israel's frustration. As he does, Palestinians are targeting Israeli settlements with the heavier weaponry of mortars, as opposed to guns, and redefining their uprising as a "war."

As both sides nudge their spiral of conflict upward, they are confirming each other's suspicions and all but ensuring the growth of further hostilities. Among analysts and officials, there is an increasing sense that this struggle could last for years.

"Even Sharon publicly admits there's no quick fix, that it will take time," says Mark Heller, a senior research associate at the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University. "It could be protracted."

He points to earlier conflicts - including the 1930s Arab Revolt against Zionists in the region and the intifada, or Palestinian uprising, of 1987 to 1993 - that stretched on for years.

"Neither of those things ended with a formal agreement or ceremonial signing," notes Mr. Heller. "It may well be that will happen this time. It's a kind of attrition."

For now, the conflict feeds on itself. Mr. Sharon has repeatedly stressed that his government will not negotiate with the Palestinian Authority until violence stops. Palestinians, referring to Israeli settlements, insist that they have a right to fight against an Israeli presence in their territories.

Israeli reprisals prompt Palestinian rebuttals, and the call and response of heavy fire has lit the night skies over Gaza every night for the past week.

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