After 21 months of open conflict, many Palestinians are rethinking two key elements of their struggle against Israel: their leader and the use of violence against Israeli civilians.
Decades of backing Yasser Arafat and years of fighting Israel with suicide bombers have not produced any positive gains, a growing number of Palestinians now say.
"There have been suicide bombings for years," says Fatheeyeh Budair, whose son Issa killed himself and 15 Israelis in a bombing near Tel Aviv in May. "And there have been no results so far."
It remains unclear whether this emerging sense of intifada fatigue will result in any substantive changes. Some analysts caution that Palestinian militants are working on ever more deadly means to fight Israel, perhaps by reviving attacks against Israeli and other targets overseas. And Arafat has weathered many periods of diminished popularity in his long career.
Even so, Palestinians seem more and more frustrated with their situation. Public opinion surveys indicate that support for both Arafat and the bombers is slipping.
Although they decry Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's use of massive military force against them, many Palestinians admit that he has succeeded in making the cost of their fight unbearably high. Likewise, most Palestinians say President Bush's call for a new Palestinian leadership amounts to high-handed US meddling in their affairs. But some also acknowledge that Bush has opened the way for intensified internal criticism of Arafat's leadership.
In their silent cities with the exception of Jericho, all Palestinian urban areas in the West Bank are under Israeli-imposed curfew Palestinians are criticizing Arafat and the bombers in ways they would not have done just three months ago.
"I feel a bitter sadness to be separated from [Issa], my youngest brother, who was the hope of this house" says Khalid Budair, sitting on a tattered couch on the porch of the family's home in Bethlehem. "We all thought Issa would be the one to pursue higher education. And instead he straps bombs around himself."
In another Bethlehem home, Amer Daraghmeh, whose brother Mohammed carried out a suicide bombing outside a Jerusalem synagogue in March that killed 11 Israelis, scorns the militants who trained Mohammed. "May God forgive them," he says.
The relatives of bombers typically say they are proud of their loved ones' sacrifice, blaming the barbarity of suicide attacks on the suffering caused by Israeli occupation and oppression. But Amer, a paramedic with a square face and a dimpled chin, seems unwilling to excuse or explain his brother's action, which killed six children under the age of 16. "Your humanity, inside, does not accept this," he says.
"International opinion is against us because of suicide bombings," he continues. "We have to stop them and tell Israel, 'Come and let's talk about peace.' Let's stop them and see what happens."
Such insights are most easily gathered privately, since support for Arafat and the bombers remains an article of faith among many Palestinians. The other day in Nablus, a long-unemployed carpenter named Muaz Joulani was asked to reflect on nearly two years of conflict with the Israelis. "It's a disaster," he says. "Everything is broken."
"I blame Arafat," he adds. "He was offered something good before Sharon was elected" a reference to Palestinian- Israeli peace talks in January 2001 "and he refused it."
Despite the curfew, the presence of a reporter draws attention, and some other men join the conversation. Suddenly, Mr. Joulani begins faulting Arafat's aides and ministers, who many Palestinians assert are corrupt. "It's not him to be blamed," Joulani says now of Arafat, "it's those around him."
Fifteen minutes later, in a different part of Nablus, the dynamic repeats itself.
Marouf Takruri, the owner of a shoe factory, says the intifada "has hurt us dearly" and that Arafat is "hopeless." But just as talk turns to the prospect of a presidential election that Arafat has promised to hold in January, some other men gather around. Before Mr. Takruri can answer a question about whom he will support, a man loudly interjects: "Yasser Arafat." Takruri, elegant in a long white tunic, pauses. Then he says: "I will vote for the one who will bring us good."
Takruri walks on, past the shuttered stores of the old city of Nablus, but agrees to answer another question about Arafat. "He's the one who has destroyed us.... Wherever he goes, he brings destruction."
Behind the nearly closed shutters of his shop, safe from the ears of others, Samer Shaher sits among unsold vats of olives and olive oil. A round-faced man with round glasses, Mr. Shaher states his political views colorfully. "If the candidate running against Arafat is a monkey," he says of the promised elections, "I will still vote for the monkey."
The intensity of this disaffection is one reason a US-educated university professor named Abdul Sattar Kassem has declared himself a candidate for president.
"Corruption has reached every little corner in Palestine," he says, promising to focus his campaign on "domestic issues." He is purposefully vague about his view of Israel and how to resolve the conflict, but he does say that "nobody should expect me to put Palestinian fighters in jail" which is precisely what the US and Israel have demanded of Palestinian leaders.
He says he can win support from Palestinians upset with Arafat, particularly Islamists. Mr. Kassem teaches Islamic political thought at An-Najah University in Nablus.
One of Arafat's longtime colleagues in the Palestine Liberation Organization, Abbas Zaki, is also choosing this moment to ratchet up his criticism of Arafat and the nature of the intifada. Arafat, he says, has created a "state of no law," failed to administer the Palestinian Authority effectively, and communicated badly. "Lying and deceiving and weaving back and forth doesn't solve a crisis," says Mr. Zaki. "It needs brave people ready to stand firm and bring peace to this area."
Kassem, although critical of US intentions, says President Bush's public call for a new Palestinian leadership has opened up the atmosphere, allowing people to speak more critically of Arafat. Zaki, a member of the Palestinian Legislative Council from Hebron, says it has had the reverse effect.
"Many friends have called me to say I shouldn't be so critical of [Arafat] and siding myself with the US indirectly," Zaki says. He says he has persisted in speaking out, but that many others have not.
Ali Jarbawi, a political scientist at Bir Zeit University in the West Bank, says the predicament facing Palestinians has made them politically schizophrenic. "People can't work, they can't move, they are suffering and they criticize Arafat because of that," he says. But deep inside, he adds, most Palestinians "are unhappy not because Arafat is a hard-liner; on the contrary, they are criticizing him because he is not tough enough."
And they are defensive in the face of external criticism. "They won't allow his removal by the Israelis and the Americans."
Palestinian public-opinion polls show declining support for bombers, but the trends are less than definitive. One pollster reports that Palestinian support for suicide bombings went from 58 percent last December to 52 percent in May; another registed a support rate for bombings of 64 percent in December 2001, which rose to 72 percent in March 2002 and has since dropped back to 68 percent in a sampling conducted in May and June.
More than 50 Palestinian intellectuals and businesspeople last month published a petition calling for an end to armed attacks against Israeli civilians, but many Palestinians found fault with the appeal because it did not sufficiently blame Israel and because the project was funded by foreign governments.
Jarbawi notes that most Palestinians sympathize with the bombers, especially in the immediate aftermath of attacks. But the intensity of Israel's responses, including military-imposed curfews and restrictions that bring normal life to a halt, has made many Palestinians think again.
"The Palestinian community in general," says Bassem Eid, a leading Palestinian human rights advocate, "has become much more aware of the Israeli reaction after each suicide bombing."
"It's an ambiguous state of mind," Jarbawi says of his fellow Palestinians. "They can't make up their minds about [the bombings]." As a result, the future might bring a deepening reluctance to engage in such tactics or a willingness to aggravate the violence. "It might go either way," Jarbawi says.
Hisham Ahmed, another Bir Zeit professor, is more pessimistic about the Palestinian fight against Israel. "I think what we might be heading towards is much worse, much stronger than before, because people have really lost hope," he says.
On the political front, there seems to be less uncertainty. "If Arafat runs, Arafat wins, no matter what," says Jarbawi.