Can a high-tech strategy restore peace to the Mideast

JERUSALEM — Guerrilla wars are generally low-tech affairs, in which politics, media image and staying power are more important than advanced weapons systems. However, in the six months that have elapsed since the onset of the Palestinian's al-Aksa intifada, the Israel Defense Force has been surprisingly successful in applying its technological edge to low-level warfare.

Using advanced systems to monitor movements and communications, as well as human sources, Israeli intelligence has identified and located terrorist staging bases and the individuals responsible for the attacks.

With this information, and employing a wide range of very precise weapons and systems, key targets — including Palestinian military planning and intelligence offices — are being struck systematically.

The combination of helicopter-launched missiles, raids carried out by IDF counter-terrorist units, and explosives targeted at individuals (such as the telephone-booth detonation that killed an Islamic Jihad leader), have taken a substantial toll.

Instead of blending into the civilian population, as is customary in guerrilla warfare, Palestinian military operatives face Israeli responses from different directions. In addition to the direct damage to their ability to wage war against Israel, these responses also have a negative psychological impact on Palestinian society.

Israel's use of precision weapons to minimize "collateral damage" (the killing or injury of civilians unconnected with the terror attacks) also deprives the Palestinians of an important political tool. The Palestinians, like Hezbollah in Lebanon, located their "police stations" and bomb factories amid civilian areas, as a form of insurance against retaliation. If counterattacks are conducted in this environment, and lead to civilian casualties, international sympathy and political support will increase.

However, unlike the Lebanese experience, this strategy has so far failed to produce results for the Palestinians. Despite the carefully nurtured image of Palestinian as victims, external criticism of Israeli military responses is relatively muted, and there is no rush to support international intervention. Indeed, as the escalation continues, the exchanges of attacks and counterattacks have been pushed out of the headlines by the U.S.-China confrontation and other events.

The greatest challenge to the IDF's strategy, to date, is posed by the increasing Palestinian use of mortar shells against Israeli civilian targets, both within the Gaza Strip and over the Green Line.

To counter the use of mortars (the possession of which constitutes a direct violation of the Oslo agreements), Israeli forces must locate and destroy the stockpiles, manufacturing facilities and launchers. The rapid-response counterattack that took place Tuesday morning, using precision-guided short-range missiles, marked a major step in this effort.

If the Palestinians continue with mortar attacks, Israel has said it will continue its own escalation. The Palestinians may even succeed in isolating Israel politically. In contrast, if the Sharon government can demonstrate the futility of a Palestinian strategy based on confrontation, Israel can prepare the ground for the return to serious political engagement.