Palestinian intifada going mainstream

Intellectuals and professionals at protest this week reveal that more Palestinians are unwilling to endure Israeli clampdown.

A demonstration in the West Bank city of Ramallah this week presented the latest face of the Palestinian intifada: organized, nonviolent mass protest - at least at first.

Hundreds of people - including smartly clad professional women, well-paid physicians, and a pipe-smoking college professor - gathered to break the Israeli closure of the main road linking Ramallah with Bir Zeit University, the pinnacle of Palestinian higher education.

This protest's tony crowd illustrates one way that the Palestinian intifada is evolving - a wider cross-section of Palestinian society is joining the struggle, partly because of Israel's new hardline prime minister, Ariel Sharon.

Monday's protest was a first for Mashhour Abu Daka, an assistant professor of mechanical engineering at Bir Zeit. He said he was appalled that the Israeli road closure had temporarily cut Bir Zeit's high-speed Internet access and its water supply. So for the first time in his life he decided to demonstrate against the Israeli presence.

Since its outbreak nearly six months ago, the Palestinian intifada has been different things to different people: a guerrilla war, a popular uprising, a negotiating tactic, a violent scourge.

Some have shown by their actions that they want to sharpen the movement's violent edge, even as others speak of trying to broaden and pacify the protests that register their frustration with Israel. Still others warn that the waning is really an organized lull that will end in an "eruption."

But if they are not agreed about what form their movement should take, Palestinians insist that the intifada will continue - especially in the face of an Israeli leader who strikes them as more brutal than his predecessors.

Bending over and grappling with the dirt and broken asphalt of the road - torn up by Israeli bulldozers - the protesters in Ramallah repaired the damage as best they could. As their own earthmover arrived, they paved the way for several cars to resume using the road. Cheers turned to choking as Israeli troops fired tear gas into the crowd.

Stone-throwing youths soon confronted the Israelis, who shot dead a Palestinian security official. But organizers said they had tried to keep their more militant allies away from this particular protest.

"Many people are beginning to understand the usefulness of popular, nonviolent movements and demonstrations," says Abdul Jawad Saleh, a Palestinian Legislative Council member who was at the protest. "I hope this really will continue. It's the only way we can confront Sharon without giving him the means to hurt us."

Mr. Sharon's tough tactics in the first days of his premiership seem to have galvanized Palestinians who once stayed away from public protest. In October and November, when this intifada began, Palestinian protests included a variety of people, but demonstrations soon centered on youthful stone-throwers backed up by small numbers of gunmen.

At Monday's rally, Albert Aghazarian, a history lecturer at Bir Zeit, brought pipe tobacco, not firearms. He noted the Palestinians' adaptability to the impositions of the Israeli security presence. "We have become excellent at getting used to this," he fumed. "It's absurd; we should defy it."

Marwan Barghouti, the West Bank leader of Fatah, the main Palestinian faction, and a man who has emerged as the intifada's field general, says Sharon's policies will indeed "push new people into the intifada." But Mr. Barghouti says the point of the Palestinian struggle at this stage is not mass protest, but to show that the Israeli leader cannot deliver on his campaign promises to the Israeli people. "They elected Sharon to guarantee security; after a few weeks or maybe months the Israelis will see that Sharon cannot," he says.

If that sounds like understated endorsement of violence against Israelis, that may be because it is. "I do believe we have the right to resist occupation by all means," Barghouti adds.

One Palestinian political scientist predicts that moves toward nonviolent struggle will be shortlived. "This is not an intifada, this is an armed confrontation," he says, decling to be identified by name. "What you will see in the future is a resumption of fighting and shooting. We are awaiting an eruption."

Indeed, the militantly anti-Israeli group Hamas has promised a string of suicide bombings to register its opposition to Sharon; the first took place in the coastal city of Netanya on March 4, killing three Israelis and the bomber.

Arafat may need a violent eruption - and the international pressure it will likely engender - in order to justify a return to the negotiating table, especially since this time he will have to talk to an Israeli leader who many Palestinians detest.

Palestinian analysts say signs of dissension within their ranks should not be taken at face value. While it is true that leaders of the intifada - such as Fatah leader Barghouti and his cousin Mustafa, a prominent doctor and activist who runs a nongovernmental organization - espouse positions that are at odds with Arafat's, these positions may well serve the Palestinian leader's cause.

In a speech last weekend, Arafat indicated his willingness to resume peace negotiations without specifying any conditions the Israelis must meet first. But Barghouti insists there should be no talks until the Israelis agree to a timetable for their withdrawal from Palestinian areas, among other conditions. Mustafa demands that the Israelis fully "lift their siege" on Palestinian areas.

But Mr. Saleh, the legislator, says these critics provide cover for Arafat, who can point to them as evidence of popular resistance to negotiations.

"I don't think Arafat can go back to the negotiating table, with Sharon, without something huge happening and the intervention of the world," adds the political scientist who declined to be named.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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