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Intifada Gives Palestinians Pause

Mideast: A year after uprising, intellectuals debate whether it's time to change course in light of attacks on U.S., and whether violence has hurt the goal of statehood.


RAMALLAH, West Bank — You won't hear it from the man with his head wrapped in a black-checked kaffiyeh who Friday torched a model of a Jewish settlement to celebrate the first anniversary of the Palestinian uprising.

Nor will you hear it from the fiery politicians stirring the crowds after Friday prayers, marching in yet another funeral and proclaiming that the intifada lives on.

But one year after Palestinians launched a new, angry fight against Israeli occupation, there is a debate within their society about whether it is time to change course and whether serious strategic mistakes have done more harm than good to the cause of nationhood.

Still confined largely to intellectual circles, the discussion calls on officials to reassess the way the intifada is being conducted--especially in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks in the United States, which have reshaped the attention paid and the sympathy given to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

It was a year ago Friday that then-opposition leader Ariel Sharon, the right-wing hawk who is now Israel's prime minister, led a contingent of troops and police onto the compound that contains the Al Aqsa mosque, one of Islam's holiest shrines. The plateau inside Jerusalem's ancient walled city is also revered by Jews as the Temple Mount, holiest site in Judaism, and Sharon sought to assert Israeli authority over it.

Sharon's visit sparked an outburst of shouting, followed by a clash between Israeli police and outraged Palestinians. The next day, a Friday, Palestinian youths, still enraged, emerged from prayers at Al Aqsa and hurled stones and iron bars at Israeli police, who fought back as some of the debris rained on Jewish worshipers below.

In the melee that ensued, four Palestinians were killed, becoming the first "martyrs" in a long, blood-soaked battle that destroyed a once-promising peace process, radicalized people on both sides of the ethnic and religious divide and devastated the Israeli and especially the Palestinian economies.

To date, about 800 people have been killed, more than three-quarters of them Palestinians. Thousands more have been injured. Despite a fledgling cease-fire, three more Palestinians, including a 10-year-old boy, were killed by Israeli fire in the West Bank on Friday, and another three were killed Friday night at the volatile Rafah border town in the Gaza Strip. A Palestinian in the West Bank city of Hebron was killed when a bomb he apparently was preparing exploded.

From Rock Throwing to Suicide Bombings

Early in the intifada, mass demonstrations by rock-throwing Palestinian youths, repressed with heavy force by Israeli troops, were replaced by Palestinian gunmen who targeted soldiers and Jewish settlers on West Bank and Gaza roads. Later, the conflict was characterized by a campaign of suicide bombings by Palestinian extremists and Israel's use of helicopter gunships and F-16 warplanes to bombard Palestinian positions and kill militants. Israel also imposed crippling blockades on many Palestinian cities and villages.

In addition to the lives ruined and jobs lost, the Palestinian critics cite another undesired consequence: The popularity of Islamic fundamentalists has soared in the last year in the West Bank and Gaza.

Almost all Palestinians agree on the goal--independence--but the critics question whether these tactics, and the corrupt leadership under Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat, can achieve it.

Saleh Abdul-Jawad, a political scientist at the West Bank's Birzeit University and a member of a politically prominent family, has spoken out in lectures and, most recently and interestingly, at a forum sponsored by the ruling Palestinian Authority.

He maintains that allowing the intifada to become as violent as it did was a damning mistake.

"The explosion was inevitable," he said in an interview at his home in the West Bank city of Ramallah, "but by using arms, the amount of violence was too much, and we fell into the Israeli trap [of escalation]. Instead of sending messages that we were still interested in peace, we sent the totally wrong messages."

Flaws Seen in the Palestinian Campaign

Echoing Abdul-Jawad is Khalil Shikaki, a leading Palestinian pollster and political analyst. If a key goal of the intifada was to improve Arafat's negotiating position, then that was achieved in the early weeks, he said. A more accommodating Israeli government was still in power and real progress in negotiations could have been made at that point. Instead, fighting escalated and Sharon's hard-line Israeli government took over in March.

Another fundamental flaw: Palestinians agreed neither on strategy nor objectives. Nationalists wanted to end Israeli occupation and attack only Israeli soldiers and settlers within the West Bank and Gaza. The Islamists wanted the destruction of Israel and attacked Israeli civilians inside the Jewish state's borders.

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