Palestinian morale rises with death toll

After a weekend of turmoil, Palestinian-Israeli casualties escalate.

After 11 months of open conflict with Israel, one might expect some battle fatigue to be setting in, particularly among the Palestinians, who have taken the bulk of the casulaties.

But Palestinians are in fact voicing a deepening determination to dig in for the long haul.

Take Yacub Qaissyeh, a garrulous Palestinian merchant and real estate developer who has resorted to farming his lands to feed his family. He acknowledges that he sees no light at the end of the Israeli-Palestinian tunnel of strife. "But that doesn't mean I want to give up."

His reaction to a Palestinian raid on an Israeli military outpost in the Gaza Strip on Saturday that left the two attackers and three Israeli soldiers dead: "Fantastic. I'm speechless," he beams.

Mr. Qaissyeh is unperturbed by the F-16 fighters that Israeli forces used against Palestinian targets over the weekend, just the third time since the Arab-Israeli war of 1967. The Palestinians have a stronger weapon, he says: the F-20 and F-21 - a reference to 20-something suicide bombers.

Rising from rubble: Palestinian children plant a flag in the debris of a Hebron house destroyed by the Israeli army Friday night in retaliation for the shooting death of an Israeli settler.
Nayef Hashlamoun/Reuters

Palestinian analysts agree that popular morale is strong. "The degree of hope today among Palestinians," says Hisham Ahmed, a US-trained scholar who teaches international relations at Bir Zeit University in the West Bank, "is much higher than it was in August or September of 2000" - the months that preceded the outbreak of violence.

Unlikely as it might seem, Mr. Ahmed says these are the best of times, not the worst. "I personally feel that Palestinians are closer to getting rid of occupation than at any time in the past.... I believe the question of Palestine has been revitalized all over again - no one can ignore it."

Several factors underlie Palestinian resilience. One is the widely held conviction that the peace process of the 1990s was deeply flawed - and that its breakdown opens the possibility of a more favorable outcome. Another is the satisfaction many Palestinians feel in actively battling the Israeli occupation of their territories. A third is the belief that Palestinians, at this juncture, have no choice but to fight.

Mohammed Taher Jaber, the Palestinian police chief in an area of the northern West Bank that Israeli jets struck early yesterday morning, insists that "whenever Israel destroys something, it has a positive effect on us."

Israeli officials said their jets targeted Mr. Jaber's police station and similar targets in the Gaza Strip in retaliation for the attack on the military outpost and a Palestinian ambush of a passenger car in the West Bank that killed two Israelis.

A more equitable peace

Few Palestinians will discuss their feelings about the present conflict without reference to the peace process - the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations that began in earnest with a handshake on the White House lawn in 1993.

It is nearly universally held that this process would have produced a bad deal for the Palestinians. "This kind of peace tries to make the PA [Palestinian Authority] into a guard service for the state of Israel and turn the Palestinian people into a minority that lives under the control of the Israelis. It means the elimination of the Palestinians as a nation and as a people," says Issa Qaraqe, a senior member of Fatah, the Palestinians' dominant political faction.

Interim peace agreements oblige the PA to protect Israel by imprisoning Palestinian militants intent on attacking Israelis to spite the peace talks. Despite the negotations' promise of eventual statehood, Israel insisted on retaining economic and security leverage over the Palestinians that many say left them a good distance short of actual sovereignty.

These arrangements were unpopular among many Palestinians, and many of these people say they are pleased to be openly resisting Israeli occupation, even if the militants or rock-throwing young men are their proxies. "The only person I can trust is the Palestinian kid who is willing to carry a stone," says Qaissyeh, the merchant-turned-farmer.

Strength in chaos?

But the Palestinian leadership has not escaped continued criticism, despite its tacit endorsement of renewed militancy against Israel. A recent paper by Yezid Sayigh, a scholar at London's International Institute for Strategic Studies, takes PA President Yasser Arafat to task for political management that "has been marked by a high degree of improvisation and short-termism, confirming the absence of an original strategy and of a clear purpose, whether preconceived or otherwise."

Mr. Sayigh, a proponent of the peace process, criticizes several aspects of the Palestinians' leadership, including "the often chaotic and counterproductive nature of Palestinian military activity. "

Political improvisation has long been one of Arafat's hallmarks, but another Palestinian analyst insists that the absence of strategic thinking is in fact an advantage.

"Our strength is based on the fact that we are not systematic, we are not planners," says Ali Jarbawi, a political scientist at Bir Zeit. "We are spontaneous, we are chaotic."

He argues that this unpredictability evens up the match with the Israelis, who seem more structured and strategically minded in facing the conflict. The Israeli strategy seems to be to employ overwhelming force in fighting the Palestinians, but Jarbawi insists this approach is both futile and counterproductive.

The escalating violence has begun to prompt some Palestinians to leave the territories for safer climes in other countries. The émigrés tend to be moderates - those who can imagine a side-by-side future with the Israelis and are willing to work toward it.

Ultimately, Jarbawi argues, the Israelis will be left with "all those who will never talk" to them.

The Israelis often characterize the conflict as a struggle for the very existence of a Jewish state in the Middle East. Jarbawi echoes this line: After nearly a year of conflict, he says, most Palestinians are indeed tired of the violence. "But," he adds, wagging a finger during an interview at a Bir Zeit cafeteria, "we don't have a choice."

"Either we have our aspirations for liberty and independence, or we don't. Our ability is through endurance.... If we say [the conflict] is finished, enough, that's it - what are we going to achieve?"

"Those who have to choose are the Israelis," he adds. "We have no choice. We are not heroes, but we have to endure."

Palestinians seem willing to pay the price. Nearly 750 people have been killed in the recent conflict - more than three quarters of them Palestinian.

"There is a widely held view that Palestinian society can withstand substantial casualties," says Ahmed, Jarbawi's colleague at Bir Zeit. "Not because people like to die - on the contrary, what people are fighting for here is life, a dignified life."

He echoes Jarbawi's view that it is the Israelis who have the luxury of choice. As the conflict proceeds, the Israelis will have ask themselves how much they are willing to put up with: "Israeli public opinion will have to reconcile itself to the bitter fact that peace and security cannot go along with occupation."

Ben Lynfield contributed to this report from Salfit, West Bank.

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