Intifadah sequel is deadlier
This Palestinian uprising is higher-profile, better-organized than the last.
JERUSALEM — In late 1987, Palestinians frustrated by Israeli occupation, a great deal of economic deprivation, and an ineffectual leadership took to the streets in a mass uprising that came to be called the intifadah.
Israelis and Palestinians use the same word to describe the violence that divides them today, but this intifadah is very different. It is deadlier, better organized, and more threatening to Israelis. Thanks to satellite television, this intifadah is also a bigger deal around the world.
The violence continues to escalate. Unknown assailants are killing Israelis as they go about their daily business; Israel is using nocturnal helicopter attacks to retaliate. Palestinians are increasingly using guerrilla tactics, and Israel says it will take the initiative, using special units to strike the enemy first.
After five weeks of unrest, the worry remains that this phase of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict could draw Arab states into a regional war.
"We are not alone," says Ismail Abu Shanab, a leader of the militantly anti-Israel party, Hamas. "We know that any escalation will change the whole Middle East. We are speaking about Jerusalem, about Palestine, which is the core of the Arab world. These Arabs cannot watch forever."
Arab support for the Palestinian cause has long been erratic, and there is little indication at this stage that Arab states are willing to offer more than money, words, and medical assistance. Even so, says Meir Litvak, a historian at Tel Aviv University, "this is the major consideration of Israeli policy right now.... No one wants a war, but everyone is conscious that things might escalate."
One difference between intifadahs old and new is the scale of the violence and the identity of its victims. In the first month of this uprising, approximately 150 people died, all but 10 Palestinian. In the first month of the earlier intifadah, 82 people died: 26 Palestinians and 56 Israelis.
The increased body count and preponderance of Palestinian casualties is a reflection of several tactical differences between the two uprisings.
Both sides are using heavier weapons. In the first intifadah, Palestinians relied on stones, only using guns toward the end of the six-year conflict; Israelis primarily used guns, batons, and tear gas.
This time Palestinians have employed rifles and automatic weapons from the outset, and are now using roadside bombs. Israel is responding with some of the heavy weapons that help make it the Middle East's most powerful military: helicopter gunships, guided missiles, and battle tanks.
The two sides are now clashing at a limited number of Israeli-held positions, whereas 13 years ago Israel occupied the entire Gaza Strip and West Bank, meaning points of confrontation were widespread.
"In the last intifadah, we Palestinians decided where clashes would take place - the Israelis were present in every place, every camp, every street," says Ibrahim Abu Sheikh, a member of the dominant Fatah faction of the Palestine Liberation Organization.
Because Palestinians are now attacking Israelis protected by improved battle gear, bunkers, and armored vehicles, it is no surprise that Palestinian casualties have soared while the number of Israelis killed has plummeted. Palestinians insist that Israelis are using excessive force, while Israeli officials counter that they are employing restraint.
Israel withdrew from most of the Gaza Strip and many cities and towns in the West Bank as a result of peace negotiations that began in 1993. These areas are now off limits to Israeli forces, making it much easier for Palestinians to plan and prepare. For one thing, Israelis can't use mass arrests to control the population, as they did the first time around.
"Now the organizing is easier than before," says Tawfik Abu Khousa, another Fatah member who was a leader of the last uprising. "In the first intifadah we used to work in secret and now we work in the open."
Perhaps most importantly, the Palestinians now have a leadership that is on the ground instead of in exile. The existence of the Palestinian Authority - another fruit of the peace process - means Palestinians can generate their own media coverage of the uprising and have financial and organizational resources that were not available in the late 1980s.
The first intifadah was a demand for world attention and a means to resist Israel's occupation of Palestinian land. The political goals of today's uprising are murkier, but observers on both sides say they are different.
"This intifadah is really their war of independence," says Col. Raanan Gissin, an Israeli military spokesman, of the Palestinians' intent. "This is not a temporary or interim stage, but the final stage to achieve what they haven't been able to around the negotiating table."
Depending on their point of view, Palestinians describe the current conflict as a means of getting Israel to make compromises in negotiations; as a final, forceful push to rid their land of Israeli troops; and as a sort of holy war to defend perceived Israeli threats against Muslim holy sites in Jerusalem.
One similarity linking then and now is the Palestinians' attempt to win international support and the interest of the global media - long key elements of their strategy.
Israelis fear and Palestinians hope that enough concern over this uprising could affect the balance of power. "There's the Kosovo strategy," says Mr. Litvak, in which "eventually the international community will force Israel into making concessions Palestinians want.... Casualties help this strategy."
Indeed, offers Mr. Abu Khousa, who is now a journalist, "with our Palestinian blood, we are going to force the whole world to interfere to solve the Palestinian question. We have the ability to take more losses than the Israelis."
As before, the Israeli strategy is mainly to contain Palestinian unrest. But unlike the earlier intifadah, the Israelis must operate on several fronts:
* Inside the Palestinian territories, where most clashes have taken place.
* On its border with Lebanon, where the Syrian-backed Hizbullah holds four Israelis hostage, hoping to trade them for Lebanese and Palestinians held in Israeli jails.
* Inside Israel proper, where Palestinians with Israeli citizenship have protested to an unprecedented degree in support of their Palestinian kin.
* And again inside Israel, where "there is the terrorist front," says Gissin, a reference to attacks against Israeli Jews.
Action on these fronts is being broadcast around the world in a way that was not possible 13 years ago. "What really helps the Palestinians in this intifadah is the satellite channels," says Abu Sheikh. "For the first time it's been transmitted to the world how criminal the Israelis are - live."
None of this is accidental. On Oct. 28, he adds, Fatah leaders met to decide on a new "media plan ... to show the suffering of our people as a result of Israeli behavior."
Indeed, Israeli officials acknowledge that the media is a battle lost. "We learned in the first intifadah," says military spokesman Gissin, that "there's nothing that can defeat a picture of an armed soldier or tank facing a boy with a stone."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society