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The Fruits of Peace?

Live ammo has replaced stones and rubber bullets, but Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu refuses to see the real causes of this new violence.

September 29, 1996|Amy Wilentz | Amy Wilentz, who lives in Jerusalem, is a staff contributor to the New Yorker

JERUSALEM — It was all the way it used to be during the old intifada--only more so: A party atmosphere at the back of the crowd--there were young people, there was flirting, there was excitement, gossip and the singing of sentimental, patriotic songs. A little boy carrying a pretend Kalashnikov like a cliche, pointing it, laughing, pointing it again. Older people coming to watch, interested, but shaking their heads. Hamas boys carrying the pretty green flag of their organization. Beir Zeit students carrying the black, white, red and green Palestinian flag. Banners waving. People crouching and running at the sound of gunfire. And at the front of the crowd, at the Israeli army checkpoint: blood, and plenty of it.

Things that were different: This time, the Palestinians had uniforms--and guns. This time, the Israelis were shooting live ammo, not rubber bullets. This time, Israeli helicopters fired down on the crowd--and it was not tear gas. This time, Israeli tanks entered the Palestinian towns, machine guns blazing. This time, the death count was far higher, on both sides. These are the advances made by peace.

Force is the one thing Israel thinks it knows how to respond to, so it is not easy to put the squeeze on the Israelis by attacking--especially if you are the notoriously short-staffed, ill-trained Palestinian Authority Security Forces, an army with no country, supplied with weapons by the Israelis themselves and platooned--no, marooned--in little islands of autonomy created and surrounded by Israel. There are no Gandhian philosophers in the Israel Defense Forces, no cheek turners. Whip out the Cobras, and send in the tanks--that is how they strategize. "We promise that everyone that shoots at us, we will shot back at them and injure them," IDF Chief of Staff Amnon Lipkin-Shahak said of the latest round of Palestinian protests.

And that is what they have done. The Palestinians may embarrass the IDF by putting it in the way of killing civilians, but the Palestinians will not get something new out of the Israeli government by allowing Palestinian Authority security forces to shoot at the IDF.

By resorting to protest and intifada, the Palestinians are pointing out that diplomatic means have proven fruitless with the Netanyahu government. Yasser Arafat's tactic in bringing the lads out into the streets again may bring the peace stalemate back to the world's front pages, but the Palestinians will still have to reckon with the Israelis, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is hanging tough--at least for now.

In the face of the suffering and bloodshed, his attitude can be explained but not excused. The press conference he gave Friday after returning from Europe was bullet-headed and insensitive--as if Israelis were the only people watching. He attempted, with no shame, to put all the blame for the recent violence on the Palestinians, even though, unquestionably, it was his government's intransigence and unwillingness to budge on the peace process--and not the opening of an Israeli tunnel in the vicinity of a major mosque--that led to last week's terrible violence.

Amusingly, to Palestinians, Netanyahu is peeved that the Palestinians are directing their fire at the Israelis. "Those firearms, firearms provided by the state of Israel, which were supposed to be directed toward terror, are being directed instead against Israeli soldiers," he says, outraged. What he means, translated by Palestinians, is: You were supposed to use those guns on your own people, not on us.

Yet, for Palestinians, the single nugget of value that has emerged from the recent violence is the solidarity it has created between the Palestinian Authority's security forces and the Palestinian people. "We are very proud about what we did," said one young Palestinian soldier who had shot at the Israelis on Wednesday in Ramallah. "The kids are our people, and we were defending them."

It is quite a change from the security forces who were shunned and despised by young Palestinians for collaborating with the Israelis in a peace process that seemed to be bearing no fruit as far as the Palestinians were concerned. It was, until recently, unthinkable that Arafat's people and Hamas and Beir Zeit students would march together in the same parade. The Israelis have managed to bring their deeply divided adversaries together.

But the unity among Palestinians is sure to be brief. Two days after the PA forces were heroes in Ramallah for firing on the Israelis, they were on the receiving end of the stoning for attempting to defuse the rioting and keep the protest away from the Israeli checkpoints. Arafat, who may well have directed his men to fire on the Israelis, is reconsidering the wisdom of such actions.

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