No longer intifada, not quite war

As this weekend's violence shows, bullets have replaced rocks as the Mideast conflict becomes more militarized.

In the 24 hours that began Saturday afternoon, there were two suicide bombings, four helicopter-borne missile attacks, two tank attacks, one vehicle-to-vehicle shooting, one attempted commando raid, one sniper killing, and a half-dozen firefights. Five Israelis and four Palestinians died in the violence.

There were no demonstrations or clashes involving stone-throwing Palestinians facing off against Israeli soldiers.

Goodbye, intifada. Hello, something war-like - something not yet defined.

Over the past half year or so, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has become more and more militarized. The Israelis have long maintained the Middle East's most powerful and technologically sophisticated fighting force. But the Palestinians are increasingly organized into units that carry out guerrilla attacks and attempt to repel Israeli incursions into Palestinian-ruled territory. Secretive cells employ a low-tech, low-cost form of unconventional warfare: the suicide bomb.

Hatem Jamal, a bearded, droopy-eyed commander of a Palestinian military unit in the southern West Bank city of Hebron, says that militants are provided with weapons and basic training and sent on organized operations. "Sometimes we decide [on an operation] based on what happens on the ground, and sometimes we get a decision from our military commanders."

The language of the conflict is beginning to reflect the changing reality.

Throughout the Middle East and in many other places around the world, people have used intifada, the Arabic word for uprising, to describe nearly a year of Israeli-Palestinian strife. The Israelis have long objected to the term, saying they are contending with terrorists, not protesters.

Now the Palestinians are starting to agree that intifada seems inappropriate.

"It's more of an armed confrontation instead of a popular intifada," says Ali Jarbawi, a political scientist at Bir Zeit University in the West Bank. In recent weeks, Palestinian newspapers and some political figures have begun to adopt the word "resistance" - a notion that in Arabic has a militant connotation - and drop intifada, which describes an essentially nonviolent mass movement.

More than semantics is at issue. Several governments, including the Palestinian Authority (PA), find comfort in the ambiguity of calling this conflict an intifada. The notion of a popular uprising shores up PA President Yasser Arafat's insistence that he cannot control the actions of every single Palestinian militant.

Labeling the conflict a war would put the governments that claim a mediating role in a difficult position. The US, for instance, is a military ally of Israel - so its diplomats might be hard pressed to maintain their ties with Palestinians if they were seen as Israel's enemy.

Since last year, Israel has labeled the conflict an "armed conflict short of war." Israel Defense Forces spokesman Lt. Col. Olivier Rafovitch says Israel's troops and civilians have faced approximately 7,600 "real ammunition events" since last fall - in his view, all part of organized Palestinian campaign to use violence as a negotiating tactic.

The IDF's role mixes "police work" with "anti-terror surgical activities," Rafovitch says. At the same time, Israel has argued that the state of hostilities means it does not have to investigate killings of civilians, which international norms demand of police forces. Israel also says its right of self-defense allows it to assassinate alleged Palestinian militants, even though many governments have condemned these killings.

The situation on the ground is probably most accurately described as an urban guerrilla war or what scholars gently dub a "low-intensity" conflict, but these terms are imperfect. "This is a kind of armed intifada, a militarized intifada," says Khader Abu Abarra, a senior activist in the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine.

"It's low-level violence and a war of attrition," offers Mark Heller, principal research associate at the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies in Tel Aviv.

Israeli foreign ministry official Daniel Sheck, attempting to see the conflict from Palestinian eyes, says "it's a war of independence - that's what I would call it." "It's their '48," he adds, referring to the Arab-Israeli war of 1948, which Israelis call their War of Independence.

Many Palestinians assert that Israel is waging a war to dismantle the Palestinian Authority and make them submit to Israeli demands. They argue that they have no option but to counter Israel's "escalations" with greater force, even though their militants are no match for the Israelis.

"We are not preparing ourselves to face the Israelis militarily," says Deeb Sharabati, a lawyer in Hebron who is the regional leader of Fatah, the dominant Palestinian political faction.

"We have to fight to defend ourselves, our dignity, and our people, and to get our rights and demands," adds another Fatah official, who declined to be named. "The Israeli escalations and the use of excessive force have compelled us to use more force to defend ourselves."

"Intifada" is a carryover from the late 1980s and early 1990s, when Palestinians took to the streets time and again to protest the Israeli presence in their territories.

This period is similar, in that Palestinians of all political persuasions - whether they are inclined toward militancy or not - say they are frustrated that the occupation has persisted in spite of the US-brokered peace process of the 1990s.

But today, much more than in the original intifada, the most common expression of Palestinian anger is hot metal - in the form of bullets, mortar shells, or the bolts and nails wrapped around a suicide bomber's explosive charge. Shouted slogans and thrown stones are rarer and rarer. "When [the Israelis] are killing and bombing," asks Mr. Sharabati, the Hebron Fatah leader, "what good are demonstrations?"

Snipers, tank commanders, and even fighter pilots administer Israel's replies. The IDF has used high-tech guided missiles and bombs filled with tiny spears called "flechettes" to hit back at the Palestinians.

A key ingredient of this dispute is land, but the two sides are not fighting to hold or take territory, as armies would on a battlefield. That is one reason why the conflict isn't called a war.

Another is technical: neither government has used the word formally. "It is not a war because we have not declared war on the Palestinian people and we have not declared war on the Palestinian Authority," Rafovitch says.

But it seems hard to deny that the Israelis and Palestinian are locked in a contest to make the other side suffer.

On that score, the evidence suggests the Israelis are winning. Israel has imposed a stranglehold on the West Bank and Gaza Strip, lands seized from Jordan and Egypt, respectively, during the 1967 Arab-Israeli War.

As a result, the Palestinian economy is operating at a subsistence level; the World Bank reports that the poverty rate in the territories went from 21.1 percent before the crisis to 35 percent at the end of 2000. The UN estimates the percentage of Palestinians living on less than $2 a day will reach 50 percent by the end of this year.

Of the nearly 800 people killed since the conflict began, Palestinian deaths outnumber Israeli deaths by almost 4 to 1.

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