JERUSALEM — FOR Palestinian extremists, the third year of the uprising against Israeli rule was a success. As the intifadah turns four on Dec. 9, moderate Palestinians and Israeli peace advocates are on the defensive. Events in the Gulf region and the killing of at least 20 Arabs on Jerusalem's Temple Mount Oct. 8 have further eroded the moderates' credibility.
``The language of the moderates has failed to translate into Hebrew,'' says Palestinian political scientist Saeb Erakat, assessing the trend toward extremism. ``There's one language failing that - violence. If I had a knife factory, I would open another branch.''
Palestinians committed to a dialogue with Israelis, he says, ``are becoming the laughingstock of the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Now public opinion is banging on the table and saying, `It's payback time.'''
One year ago, after the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) won a long battle for political dialogue with Washington, leading East Jerusalem activist Faisal Husseini said the new goal of the intifadah would be to win over the Israeli public.
``Not only didn't it happen,'' explains Mordechai Bar-On, a retired Israeli colonel and a founder of the pro-compromise Peace Now movement. ``I think we had a setback in terms of Israeli public opinion concerning the possibilities of a real peace process with the Palestinians.''
He attributed the sea change in Israeli public opinion to the obstructionist policies of Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir's right-wing government, formed in June with the backing of religious factions, and to Palestinian support for Iraq after the Aug. 2 invasion of Kuwait.
Support for President Saddam Hussein, who before the invasion threatened to ``burn half of Israel'' with chemical weapons, came as a shock to Israelis and strengthened the hands of hard-liners like Mr. Shamir.
``It was a great setback [for the peace camp], and it is still there,'' Colonel Bar-On says. While much of the Israeli leftwing - the 30 percent of the public in favor of talks with the PLO toward the establishment of a Palestinian state - has returned to the fold, he says. ``We lost the center [of the Israeli public], and this is much more dangerous, I think.''
Mr. Husseini insists that popular support here for Saddam was misread and blown out of proportion by Israel and the West. The PLO never condoned the occupation of Kuwait, he says. It is no different than 23 years of Israeli occupation in the West Bank and Gaza, an occupation the world had chosen to ignore, he added.
``We gained a lot of lip service during two and a half years of the intifadah, but in the end, when it came to implementation [of a peace process], we found ourselves alone,'' Husseini explains. ``We were in a jungle and there was an Israeli tiger who was eating our flesh daily. So, Palestinians were happy to see another tiger in the jungle. Not because we are in love with tigers, but because we believed this new tiger, Saddam Hussein, could stop the other Israeli tiger.''
A third tiger, in the form of Islamic fundamentalism, is lurking in the occupied territories.
Fundamentalism is nothing new in the refugee camps, but it has been revived by the lack of a peace process and worsening economic conditions. (Mr. Erakat estimated that 25,000 Palestinians, former workers in Kuwait, will return by year end, swelling the 30 percent unemployment rate in the occupied territories.)
Clearly, the killings on the Temple Mount have strengthened militant Muslim groups like Hamas and Islamic Jihad, always vying with the more moderate PLO for control of the intifadah.
On the surface, little has changed in Gaza's Jabalya refugee camp, where three years ago a fatal traffic accident involving an Israeli truck and an Arab car touched off riots that became the intifadah.
The children of the camp - the foot soldiers of the uprising - still throw stones daily at soldiers, emerging from ramshackle homes, chanting ``PLO'' and flashing the two-fingered victory signs that is the symbol of the organization. But many also chant different slogans - ``God is Great'' and ``Use Chemical Weapons, Saddam'' - reflecting the move toward fundamentalism and violence. The moderates hope to slow the process. ``As far as we are concerned, our backs are to the wall,'' says Haider Abdel Shafi, director of the Gaza Red Crescent Society. ``We are not going to submit.''
But the Palestinians can't succeed without international support, Husseini says.
``If nothing happens on the political front, then unfortunately next year you will not be interested in meeting with me,'' he says. ``You will want to meet someone else who can understand the language of the jungle better than me. Maybe someone with a big beard [an Islamic fundamentalist].''