Israel's army chief has exposed deep divisions between the military and Prime Minister Ariel Sharon by branding the government's hardline treatment of Palestinian civilians as counterproductive and saying that the policy intensifies hatred and strengthens "terror organizations."
Lieutenant General Moshe Ya'alon also told Israeli journalists in an off-the-record briefing that the army was opposed to the route of the "security fence" through the West Bank.
The government also contributed to the fall of the former Palestinian prime minister Ahmoud Abbas, by offering only "stingy" support for his attempts to end the conflict, he said.
Ya'alon had apparently hoped his anonymous criticisms would strengthen the army's voice, which has been subordinated to the views of the intelligence services in shaping policy.
But the comments were so devastating that he was swiftly revealed as the source.
The statements -- which a close associate characterized to the Israeli press as warning that the country was "on the verge of a catastrophe" -- will also reinforce a growing perception among the public that Sharon is unable to deliver the peace with security he promised when he came to office nearly three years ago.
The criticism is made all the more searing because Ya'alon is not known for being soft on the Palestinians. As deputy chief of staff, he described the latest conflict as the second stage of Israel's independence war.
The general warned that the continued curfews, reoccupation of towns and severe restrictions on the movement of Palestinians, combined with the economic crisis they have caused, were increasing the threat to Israel's security.
"In our tactical decisions, we are operating contrary to our strategic interest," Ya'alon said. "It increases hatred for Israel and strengthens the terror organizations."
Earlier this week, army commanders in the West Bank told a meeting of the military administration in the occupied territories that Palestinians had reached new depths of despair, which was fuelling hatred for Israel that had little to do with the propaganda so often blamed by the government.
"There is no hope, no expectations for the Palestinians in the Gaza Strip, nor in Bethlehem and Jericho," Ya'alon said.
The commanders warned that the situation was strengthening Hamas, a view the Israeli intelligence services agreed with.
But while the army sees the solution as easing most oppressive elements of occupation, the Shin Bet argues that growing support for Islamist groups is a reason to keep the clampdown in place. This is the preferred option of the defense minister and Ya'alon's predecessor as army chief of staff, Shaul Mofaz.
Sharon and Mofaz were reportedly furious at the general's statements and initially demanded that he retract them or resign. But the political establishment apparently decided it would be a better tactic to deride Ya'alon.
Anonymous sources in the prime minister's office were quoted in the Israeli press complaining that the army chief was trying to blame the politicians for the military's failures.
But army radio reported on Thursday that the Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom agreed that there needs to be a substantial easing of restrictions on the Palestinian population.
Deputy Prime Minister Ehud Olmert was also reported to have backed the general's view.