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Tuesday, 18 February, 2003, 14:17 GMT
Q&A: Middle East conflict
Two-and-a-half years of fighting have all but extinguished any common ground that existed between Israel and the Palestinians. BBC News Online examines the main issues behind the violence.

What is happening in Israel and the Palestinian territories?

Israeli forces moved into key Palestinian towns in the West Bank at the end of March 2002 to try to halt a series of suicide attacks on its citizens.

There were many casualties in the military operation which also sparked a wave of protests in the Arab world and led Israel's main ally, America, to call for troop withdrawals.

The action caused much hardship among Palestinians, and the militant bombing campaign against Israel has continued since.

Israel has largely maintained control of rural areas and nearly all of the towns in the West Bank. Palestinians describe this as a re-occupation of areas that had been under Palestinian Authority control. Israel describes the operations as continuing security measures.

So how did the violence begin?

The Palestinian intifada, or uprising, broke out at the end of September 2000.

Analysts say the atmosphere at the time was ripe for an explosion. Palestinian frustration that years of the peace process had failed to deliver their political aspirations was intensified by the failure of the Camp David summit in July 2000.

Current Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon - at the time in opposition - visited a site in Jerusalem known to Muslims as the Noble Sanctuary (Haram al-Sharif) and to Jews as Temple Mount.

The Palestinians viewed the visit as provocative because the compound lies on territory captured by Israel in the 1967 war and is at the centre of the fierce dispute over the sovereignty of Jerusalem. It ended in bloody clashes at the mosque, which quickly spread through the occupied Palestinian territories.

Correspondents say the visit was intended to underline the Jewish claim to the city and its holy sites.

What has happened to the peace process?

One of the weaknesses of the 1990s' Oslo peace process was that it deliberately left the most difficult issues - the status of Jerusalem, refugees and borders - until last, in the belief that this would make them easier to resolve.

These issues were finally discussed when the former US President Bill Clinton made an all-out attempt to bring then Prime Minister Ehud Barak and the Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat together at Camp David in Maryland, Virginia.

An agreement was in sight, but talks broke down over failure to agree on the future of Jerusalem and - to a lesser extent - the fate of Palestinian refugees.

Israeli leaders believed they had been generous to the Palestinians, while Palestinian negotiators rejected the proposals as inadequate.

The two sides came even closer to agreement when they met in Taba, Egypt in January 2001. But this, too, ended in failure.

There has been very little progress on the diplomatic front since Mr Sharon took office.

He has accused his predecessor of offering the Palestinians unacceptable concessions at Camp David and that all Israel got in return was violence.

One of the biggest obstacles to a final status agreement is the issue of Jewish settlements. Mr Sharon has long been seen as a champion of the settlers' cause and settlement building and expansion continues.

The Palestinian Authority should, under Israeli-Palestinian agreements, control most of Gaza but less than 40% of the West Bank, in non-contiguous chunks that are dotted with Israeli settlements. The Palestinians believe there can only be a purely Palestinian state if the settlements are dismantled.

Why are both sides locked in this violence?

Mr Sharon says there is no room for dialogue as long as violence continues. He said the Barak Government tried to negotiate under fire for several months but to no avail.

The Israeli leader has shown a resolutely tough hand in his dealings with the Palestinians, and his policies have wide support among most Israelis.

They support the government's view that Israel is exercising its right to self-defence in the face of attacks from Palestinian militants on Israeli civilians and defence forces.

The government accuses Mr Arafat of failing to contain militant groups like Hamas and Islamic Jihad which carry out many of the attacks. But analysts are now increasingly arguing that Mr Arafat is in no position to control them.

The Palestinians say militant attacks on Israel are inevitable as long as there is no satisfactory Palestinian state.

The militant group Hamas has pledged to continue its attacks and intensify the armed struggle against Israel. The group's popularity has soared recently, following the demise of the peace process and general sense of despair.

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