QALANDIYA, West Bank - Reeling from a series of deadly ambushes against its soldiers, the Israeli army unleashed ferocious attacks yesterday and early today against the Palestinians, killing 24 in one of the bloodiest periods of the 17-month conflict.
For the second time since December, an Apache helicopter fired a missile into Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's compound in Ramallah, hitting an intelligence post yards from where Arafat sat at his desk. It shattered an office window, but Arafat was not hurt.
Twelve of the dead were Palestinian policemen. Army units swept through the West Bank and Gaza Strip, arresting suspected militants and closing roads that link Palestinian cities, isolating scores of villages and disrupting the daily routine of hundreds of thousands of people.
At the Qalandiya checkpoint, the main link between the northern West Bank and Jerusalem, edgy Israeli soldiers blocked the road with concrete barriers and fired bursts of automatic weapons fire over the head of anyone who ventured near.
Meeting in Jerusalem last night with more than 100 members of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said he would intensify military operations against the Palestinian Authority and militant groups.
Earlier, Sharon told reporters that he would not lead his nation into war, but last night he repeatedly told an appreciative crowd that "we are in a war being launched against us by a coalition of terror."
The prime minister said he will exert more and more pressure on Arafat to trigger an internal change in leadership. "Maybe [then] we will have somebody with whom we can negotiate."
As Sharon spoke, helicopter gunships and F-16 warplanes launched a second wave of attacks on Palestinian police and security posts in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, injuring eight. Early today Israeli forces swept into Gaza City and killed five more Palestinians
Palestinian officials condemned yesterday's onslaught, which came hours after gunmen linked to Arafat's mainstream Fatah faction shot and killed six Israeli soldiers in the West Bank, the latest in a string of attacks against the army that has left 12 soldiers dead in the past week.
At the same time, the Palestinian officials conceded that the situation has spiraled so far out of control that Arafat could not stop the violence even if he wanted. Police in Palestinian cities have been ordered to abandon their posts and go home because of the Israeli attacks.
"They're sitting ducks," said Hanan Ashrawi, a Palestinian legislator and spokeswoman for the Arab League. "The police are being killed in cold blood, and at the same time, Israel wants them to arrest and imprison Palestinians."
Ashrawi said that any cease-fire orders given now, even by Arafat, who has been pinned in his Ramallah office by Israeli tanks since January, would be useless and would be ignored.
She blamed the deteriorating situation on Sharon, saying his army's attacks are undermining law and order, and allowing extremists to take over the Palestinian streets.
"I think he has gone crazy," she said. "He knows only how to shoot. He has no concept of what it takes to make peace."
Among Israelis, Sharon is coming under intense pressure from the political left and right. Both groups, for different reasons, are increasingly frustrated by what appears to be a policy of reaction that develops from attack to attack, instead of an overall plan to end the violence.
Moderate Israelis, such as Foreign Minister Shimon Peres, want Sharon to return to negotiations. Peres told the American group yesterday that the Palestinians should have been granted an independent state a decade ago.
"We cannot keep 3 1/2 million Palestinians under siege without income, oppressed, poor, densely populated, near starvation," Peres said, adding that, without some hope of a state, the Palestinians will not make peace with Israel.
Those on the far right have a different viewpoint. They are demanding early elections - voting is scheduled for next year - saying that Sharon must oust Arafat or the electorate will oust Sharon.
"From his first day in office, Sharon has done nothing but fight Palestinian terror and violence," the liberal Israeli newspaper Haaretz said yesterday. "The harder he strikes, the more terror we get in return. More Israelis have been killed under Sharon than in the days of any other prime minister. True, we've written about this before, but it's a fact, and it boils down to this: Sharon has no military solution for the intifada."
Sensing cracks in Israeli resolve, Palestinian militant groups have vowed in recent days to intensify their fight. The Aqsa Brigades is concentrating its attacks on soldiers and Jewish settlers in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, avoiding strikes within Israel.
The belief is, that attacking Israelis living outside the pre-1967 borders on land the Palestinians regard as their own is a legitimate fight against occupation and brings less criticism than killing civilians in Jerusalem.
"If you are under occupation, you resist occupation," Ashrawi said. "But you don't take the battle to their civilian population."
Ashrawi said Tuesday night's attack that killed six Israeli soldiers at a checkpoint west of Ramallah is an acceptable part of the Palestinian campaign.
"They were occupying our land and staffing a checkpoint that humiliated the Palestinian people," she said.
But the Israeli army said yesterday that the checkpoint had stopped more than 150 suspected militants in 16 months, including several would-be suicide bombers. Yesterday, the army closed all of the checkpoints in the West Bank, including Qalandiya.
This dusty crossroads has become a grueling ordeal to cross and a symbol to Palestinians of the burden their civilians are suffering under Israel's policy of collective punishment. Closing it cuts off the primary access between Jerusalem and the West Bank.
Several clashes broke out here during the day, most dispersed by gunfire and tear gas. Palestinians are preparing for this weekend's al-Adha feast, a celebration marking the end of the Haj pilgrimage, and are trying to shop and visit relatives.
Falastin Zakarneh, 22, a biology student at Birzet University in Ramallah, was trying yesterday to get home to Jenin, in the northern West Bank. She took a cab south, walked across the hillside past the checkpoint, then waited more than an hour to find a cab to Jenin.
Because Israeli forces had closed most of the roads, she would have to get out of her cab at each of the many checkpoints along the way, walk through the hills, then find another cab to the next checkpoint.
It is a dangerous walk, as bypassing an Israeli checkpoint can draw gunfire from soldiers.
"I have nothing to lose," she said.
Israeli leaders made no apologies for their actions yesterday, which were relentless and deadly.
In Gaza, helicopters and warplanes launched a three-hour barrage on Arafat's seaside compound, strafing it with artillery and firing two dozen air-to-ground missiles, destroying buildings and a yacht. Four Palestinian police officers were killed.
In the West Bank city of Nablus, Israeli troops raided two villages and a refugee camp, killing 10 Palestinians in what both sides described as protracted gunfights. At least five of the dead were police.
In Ramallah, helicopters fired at Arafat's compound and destroyed two police posts on the outskirts of the city. Two Palestinians were killed, including a cook preparing breakfast for security officers.
Yesterday afternoon, the army said it chased two Palestinians trying to infiltrate a Jewish settlement in the Gaza Strip, and killed them both.
Last night, Palestinian officials said Israeli soldiers killed a member of the militant group Hamas as he was trying to fire a mortar at a Jewish settlement.