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Sharon Still "the Bulldozer" as Violence Spirals

As tit-for-tat violence spills more blood and claims more lives in the Middle East, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon won't let popularity polls keep him from sticking to his guns and to his missiles.

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Virtually immovable

Nothing seems to budge Ariel Sharon.

Neither the spilling of blood on either side of the Gaza strip, nor the spiraling violence which has led to terror and mayhem in the Middle East and least of all international calls for restraint and caution.

He clings to his mission of ensuring total security for Israel on his own terms with the tenacity of a bulldog.

Called "The Bulldozer", the 72-year-old barrel-shaped war veteran and hawkish head of the right-wing Likud Party has steamrolled opposition calls within his government and international pleas to end revenge strikes against Palestinian targets.

The Israeli leader has single-mindedly pursued a policy of keeping maximum land and political rights for the Jewish state while giving the very bare minimum of both to the Palestinians, say his critics.

Up until now, the policy has only drawn criticism from abroad. But recent popularity polls suggest 17 months of conflict have begun taking their toll on Israelis as well.

Israeli army bungles attack

In one of the worst blunders in recent months, the Israeli army on Monday killed innocent civilians on both sides in a botched attack against a suspected Hamas activist in Ramallah that left six Palestinians, including a woman and her two sons, dead.

The Israeli army later admitted that it had made a mistake. But Sharon has now come under renewed fire from left-wing members of his government who fear that such tactics fail in their objectives and encourage Palestinian reprisals.

Sharon also faces criticism that last week's invasion of Palestinian refugee homes by the Israeli army was a failure in terms of suspected militants arrested and weapons seized.

Worse, Sharon faces dissent even among his own Israeli troops assigned to exposed checkpoints in the Palestinian territories. Some 300 Israeli reservists have openly declared that they will not serve there.

Rifts within Israeli Cabinet

Meanwhile the Israeli cabinet that met over the weekend appeared sharply divided over their reaction to Sharon's policy of crushing the Palestinian Intifada or uprising with brute force and superior missile and rocket attacks.

Some right-wing hard-line ministers bayed for revenge and pressed for harsher measures including the dismantling of the Palestinian Authority (PNA), a direct attack on Yasser Arafat and a partial reoccupation of Palestinian authorities.

Israel Radio reported that the dovish Foreign Minister Shimon Peres was scathing in his response to the repressive measures.

"If the ministers were to pursue that course of action, they would end up like Milosevic at the Hague", the radio reported Peres as saying.

Yesterday marked one of the bloodiest days of the 17 months of enduring violence in the Middle East as a Palestinian gunman shot dead three Israelis in a Tel Aviv restaurant and a suicide bomber blew himself up on a bus in northern Israel killing one person.

The violence exploded just hours Sharon vowed to "hit hard" at Palestinian militants as a prerequisite to peace talks.

Murky military past

But perhaps Sharon's unrelenting military measures are not surprising considering his own controversial military past.

Sharon who fought in the Arab-Israeli war in 1948-1949 after the creation of the Jewish state for an underground Jewish military organisation, is notorious for the extreme military measures he issued against Egyptian military units stationed in the Gaza strip in the 1950s.

An incident in 1955 led to the death of 38 Egyptian troops.

In the six-day war in June 1967, Sharon, who by then had become brigadier general, enforced harsh occupation measures after Israel captured East Jerusalem, the West Bank and the Gaza strip.

One of Sharon's most infamous acts was his orchestration of Israel's invasion of Libanon in 1982 after he was elected to the Israeli Parliament in 1977.

It led to the purging of Arafat's Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO) from Lebanon and to the massacre of hundreds of Palestinians by Lebanese Christian militia in two Beirut refugee camps under Israeli control.

An Israeli tribunal found Sharon indirectly responsible for the killings and removed him from office in 1983.

After the latest surge in violence yesterday the Palestinian Information Minister Yasser Abed Rabbo had some advice for the belligerent Sharon, "Sharon does not need dialogue, he needs psychiatric treatment," he told Reuters.

But that likely wouldn't move the Israeli leader either.

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