THE Israeli Army poured troops into the West Bank and Gaza Strip yesterday, in a bid to stave off trouble as Palestinians prepared to mark the sixth anniversary of their intifadah, or uprising, today.
The anniversary, always a volatile day marked by a general strike in the occupied territories, and stone-throwing at soldiers and settlers, falls at an especially delicate moment. A wave of violence is sweeping the West Bank four days before the Palestinians are due to take their first steps toward self-rule.
In the latest incident, an Israeli was seriously wounded by a Palestinian in Bethlehem yesterday morning. Israeli troops closed the town as they hunted the assailants.
As the death toll mounts, and as doubts spread that Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) will meet the Dec. 13 target date to begin implementing their autonomy accord, observers on both sides of the conflict agree that without the intifadah there would probably not have been a peace treaty at all.
``The intifadah finally brought them together, and made Israelis and Palestinians realize that they had to negotiate,'' says Zeev Schiff, who co-wrote a book on the Palestinian uprising. ``Without the intifadah, it would have been much more difficult for the Israelis to realize that they needed a strategic solution.''
At the same time, says Freih abu-Middain, head of the Gaza Bar Association, the intifadah gave the Palestinians a sense of dignity ``like the 1973 war for [then Egyptian President Anwar] Sadat: It gave us the confidence to make peace with Israel.''
For opponents of the framework peace accord between Israel and the PLO, under which Palestinians will enjoy limited autonomy, starting in the West Bank city of Jericho and the Gaza Strip, the deal falls far short of the goal they have been fighting for over the past six years - an independent Palestinian state.
Masked militants belonging to Hamas, the radical Islamist group, marched in the the Gaza Strip on Tuesday, pledging to continue their intifadah against Israel, even after Israeli troops withdraw from Gaza.
The uprising began on Dec. 9, 1987, the day after an Israeli truck ran into a Palestinian vehicle carrying laborers from the Gaza Strip, killing four of them. That incident, which rumor quickly transformed into a deliberate act of murder, triggered rioting that developed into the intifadah, an Arabic word that literally means ``shaking off.''
Small boys throwing stones at Israeli military patrols came to symbolize the Palestinian struggle, although this ``David and Goliath'' imagery has become less accurate in the last two years, as generalized resistance to the occupation has ebbed, replaced by individual acts of armed violence.
The intifadah, Mr. Middain says, ``is the best thing that ever happened to us in the history of the Palestinians, the only struggle for our rights.''
Many other factors conspired to bring the peace process to fruition, of course - the Gulf war, which prompted a new United States commitment to resolve the Palestinian problem, and the disappearance of the Soviet Union, which forced Syria to reorient its foreign policy.
But the intifadah has been central to the relations between Israel and the Palestinians for the past six years.
Young men once on the run from the Army, for example, wanted for being leaders of the intifadah, are now in charge of the PLO headquarters in Gaza City, fitting out their offices with carpeting and telephones instead of hiding in secret safe houses. Indeed, they sat down with top Israeli military commanders two weeks ago to discuss ways of cooling the atmosphere after several days of unrest.
The fate of the 12,000 intifadah activists still in jail is proving one of the toughest problems in the Israeli-PLO negotiations over the details of autonomy, as the Palestinians demand pledges that they will be released over the next few months.
Officially, the intifadah ended Sept. 13, when Israel and the PLO signed the Declaration of Principles, and PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat, in a letter to Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, said that ``the PLO renounces the use of terrorism and other acts of violence.''
But Mr. Arafat has been unable to control Palestinians opposed to the peace accord, who have stepped up their attacks against Israeli targets in the occupied territories.
Even Arafat's supporters, frustrated to see that the Israeli Army has not changed its ways, are back on the streets throwing stones in scenes reminiscent of the first days of the intifadah.
The difference, though, as Mr. Schiff worries, is that ``unless we reach an agreement on Dec. 13, or very soon afterwards, the situation in the territories will deteriorate. But it will be an intifadah against both Rabin and Arafat, an intifadah against peace.''