This Time, Palestinian Intifadah Loses Punch
BETHLEHEM, WEST BANK — A band of young men and small boys comes fleeing into the rubble-strewn yard tucked away behind the front lines of the new uprising. Protesters regroup in this refuge from the tear gas and rubber bullets that Israeli soldiers spurt out with each new round of Palestinians' rocks and Molotov cocktails - an escalating exchange that left three Palestinian dead and more than 100 wounded on Tuesday.
"The peace? It's over," says Iyad Homejourah, a Palestinian in his late teens. "There isn't a chance for peace now. There would only be a peace between leaders, not between people." Says another teen: "We don't want peace, we want an intifadah."
Some say he already has his wish, that the 1987-1993 intifadah - a rebellion against Israeli military rule of the West Bank and Gaza - has returned. But there are signs that this is not the intifadah of old, nor may it be accurate to call it an intifadah at all.
Perched above the neatly defined line of confrontation, Palestinian families calmly sit on their roofs and watch the clashes from a comfortable distance, much as if viewing a fireworks display. Unlike the original intifadah, there is no huddling inside for fear of stray bullets or mass arrests by Israeli soldiers. And hardly a half-mile away from the hot spot where the Israeli Army is stationed to guard the Biblical shrine of Rachel's Tomb, quiet ensues. There is little to indicate that passersby are practically in shouting distance of a conflict that appears on television cameras to be dancing dangerously toward war.
This is not the intifadah Israelis and Palestinians once knew. The uprising of old was one of widespread, popular participation that often took place on any and every Palestinian street, since that was where Israeli soldiers were to be found. Schools were closed and stores were shuttered, and even fellow Palestinians' cars were stoned for driving in violation of strictly enforced strike days. Such self-imposed hardships, in addition to Israeli curfews and crackdowns, plunged an entire society into daily upheaval and unpredictable violence.
The Oslo accords reached in 1993 with the aim of bringing peace to this disputed land have dramatically limited the battlefield that characterized the old intifadah. The Israeli withdrawal from eight West Bank cities and most of the Gaza Strip, and the creation of a Palestinian Authority (PA), provided a measure of independence. The self-rule scheme also took away much of the access to what Palestinians need in order to carry out an intifadah: Israelis in uniform.
A fight made for media
"When the intifadah broke out, the IDF [Israel Defense Forces] was all over the West Bank. They don't have Israeli targets in the cities anymore," says Mark Heller, an intifadah expert at Tel Aviv University. Now, "it's a more conventional, straightforward confrontation. It doesn't disrupt people's lives or interfere the same way it used to, and you don't have innocent bystanders getting caught in the crossfire. A lot of it is political theater ... orchestrated for the media."
If, with the exception of the West Bank town of Hebron, the Israeli Army is no longer inside most Palestinian population centers, optimists see that as a feather in Oslo's cap. But Palestinian pessimists use this setup as fodder for arguments that Oslo didn't grant them independence, it just relieved Israelis of the unpleasant burden of having to police Palestinian streets.
As some Palestinians read it, this is "to the advantage of the Israeli side, and to let them pull out the occupied areas is to help the Israelis," says Ghassan Khatib, head of the Jerusalem Media and Communication Center. Such peace rejectionists "are not buying the statement that these areas are liberated," he says.
"This puts part of the Palestinians at a disadvantage. If they try to resist, they find themselves facing the Palestinian police. That adds to the frustration because occupation still exists" outside the main cities, Mr. Khatib says.
Moreover, the dismantling of what Israel called the civil administration and Palestinians called occupation authorities, took away the opportunity for nonviolent forms of intifadah, such as refusing to pay taxes.
"Intifadah is a massive public movement that [also] takes disobedient, nonviolent forms, and [the 1987-1993 intifadah] included Palestinians in different areas, different ages, of different means," Khatib adds. "Now ... it doesn't include different strata."
Different trigger, controls
But then, the intifadah that erupted a decade ago was different from the start. After a 1987 Israeli Army jeep crash in Gaza that killed four Palestinians, riots erupted spontaneously and spread to the West Bank. The revolt is remembered as a grass-roots undertaking in which Palestine Liberation Organization officials living abroad initially had little role.
Now, with the PA in place, analysts suggest the riots are being organized from the top down, rather than the bottom up. The fiat may not be coming directly from Palestinian President Yasser Arafat, but from the leadership of his Fatah party faction of the PLO.
"I don't think it's intifadah yet," says Zakaria Al-Qaq, co-director of the Israel-Palestine Center for Research and Information. The real intifadah, he says, "was a spontaneous activity by the people themselves, and [the violence] has a different component this time because the PA is here."
Now, many Palestinians live much of their lives without seeing Israeli soldiers. Ziad Abbas, a native of Deheishe Refugee Camp near Bethlehem, remembers total, vehement participation of his community in the intifadah. Now, the camp is in Area A, under complete PA control.
"It was a hotbed during the intifadah, and now, they have not joined the struggle," says Mr. Abbas, twice arrested while working as a journalist during the intifadah. "People are not willing to be victims of this game, between Israel and the PA," he says.
Moreover, intifadah past was a more generalized insurrection against Israeli control, and in favor of a then-nebulous concept of Palestinian independence. Intifadah present has zeroed in on the future of Jerusalem.
There is a contained character to recent clashes. Palestinian police interfere in the fighting to hold back the crowds, usually after letting them vent anger. In Bethlehem and Hebron, the scene of the most fierce clashes this week, Palestinian forces could be seen waiting in the distance for orders to begin intervention.
More deadly than before?
Though the fight this time may be more manufactured and confined, it is still potentially more deadly. The approximately 50,000 machine guns held by Palestinian forces - plus illegal weapons in the hands of militant Islamic groups - tilt the military balance away from complete Israeli dominance. Some Israelis accuse the PA of smuggling antitank and antiaircraft missiles in reaction to last September's gun battles between Israeli soldiers and Palestinian police. Palestinians say they are trying to keep the conflict at its current level as long as Israelis avoid using live ammunition, because anything more will not be a new intifadah, but war.
And despite the absence of widespread participation in this quasi-intifadah, limited mostly to students, polls show Palestinian support for the peace process is plunging. Nearly half supported a recent suicide-bombing attack that killed three Israelis in Tel Aviv. Meanwhile, young Palestinians are sticking to stones.
At their house in Hebron, the Ishboul family sits on the roof and passes around the binoculars to get a closer look at the fighting. "Come over to this side of the building," a young woman tells a reporter. "The view is better. Would you like tea?"