Ariel Sharon loathes Yasser Arafat. If he could do it all over again, Sharon has said, he would have killed Arafat in Lebanon 20 years ago when he had the chance. And yet last week--with the number of Israelis slaughtered on his watch rising, the country sliding closer to war and its citizens sinking deeper into despair--Sharon tried to keep his enemy awake, as if Arafat were the only person in the world who could understand his troubles. Before dawn on Wednesday, Israeli Apache helicopters fired missiles into a building next to the office compound in Ramallah where Arafat has been involuntarily quarantined since December. The next day Israeli gunships blitzed the compound again, this time destroying a building used by Palestinian Authority soldiers and injuring one of Arafat's bodyguards. Sharon was not aiming to hurt Arafat. A senior aide told TIME, "We want him to think twice before he sleeps at night."
Arafat didn't risk going to bed. In public, his aides boasted that he stayed in his bunker on al-Irsal Street, defiantly working through the attacks and refusing pleas from his friends to move to another location in Ramallah. "He doesn't want to be seen running from the Israelis," a senior adviser told TIME. But privately, Arafat and his cabinet took "preventive measures" to save themselves. And Arafat, the aide says, "feels depressed and nervous."
That trembling mood was shared last week by millions of traumatized Israelis and Palestinians, by neighboring Arab regimes fearful that the unrest would spread to their streets and by the increasingly isolated moderates in the Bush Administration eager to clean up the mess in the Middle East. The 17-month-old cycle of killing in Israel and the occupied territories has become a death spiral from which there seems to be no escape. More than 50 people died in a three-day exchange of suicide attacks and air strikes that left even hardened veterans of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict numb with disbelief. As it always does, escalation brought with it the perverse hope that both sides might finally be persuaded to find a way out of the madness. Late last week top Israeli and Palestinian security officials met under CIA auspices to discuss a cease-fire, and the Israeli army eased travel restrictions in the Gaza Strip. On Friday Secretary of State Colin Powell cited the security meetings and a new Saudi peace initiative as causes for mild optimism. "Both sides are still trying to find a way forward," he said.