This article is adapted from a talk Salim Tamari gave at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies in Washington, DC on February 25, 1988.

This year, 1988, is the end of the second decade of Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. It is also the fortieth anniversary of the establishment of the state of Israel. Which means we have two generations who grew up under Israeli control in the Galilee, and one whole generation which grew up under occupation in the West Bank and Gaza. Demographically, roughly 60 percent of the people of the West Bank and Gaza are today under 17 years of age. These are the core of the people you watch every day confronting Israeli soldiers. Age is significant here: It suggests the context in which young people begin to lose fear in facing death or mutilation of their bodies.

When Israel entered the Occupied Territories after defeating the armies of Jordan, Syria and Egypt in June 1967, it was not very clear what it wanted to do with the territories. There was a vigorous debate between the two branches of the national unity government of that time, very similar to the unity government ruling Israel today. Then it comprised the right-wing Herut Party, which is the core of today’s Likud coalition, and the Labor Party. In that period the perspective of former Defense Minister Moshe Dayan determined Israeli strategy. Perhaps the best way to summarize Dayan’s perspective is that Israeli rule should be felt but not seen. Arabs should be able to administer their own affairs and go through the cycle of life — birth registration, marriage, school, receiving services — without having to encounter Israeli officials. At the same time, Israel should keep a firm grip on all matters relating to security and the resources of the region.

The contesting perspective was expressed recently by Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir: that Israel should establish a fear of the Jews in the hearts of the Arabs. It was Dayan’s strategy of control through indirect means that triumphed. Dayan cleverly charted the integration of the Occupied Territories into the body of Israel through three institutional mechanisms — infrastructure, labor and markets. These three central control mechanisms were the foundation on which Israel constructed its political hegemony over the region, undergirded of course by Israel’s monopoly of coercive force and a pervasive intelligence network.

In terms of physical infrastructure, Israel began a substantial process of restructuring the transport and communications network of the West Bank and Gaza, relinking them with Israel. It became much easier for a Jewish settlement in a place like Ariel, or Kiryat Arba in the Hebron district, to connect with Tel Aviv and Jerusalem than it was for the Jewish settlements in the West Bank to interact with the Arab villages there. There is a security function here, i.e., it allows Jewish settlers to move freely without going through Arab concentrations of population, but the original intention was to create a network that would physically integrate the occupied territories with the state of Israel.

In the same manner, the water and electricity grids and the whole system of land zoning were integrated with Israel in such a way that for water and electricity supplies the Arabs had to depend on Mikerot, the Israeli water company, and on Israeli utilities. The net result was to create forms of dependence by the Arab municipal organizations on Israel and its economy.

Labor and Markets

More important than this integration of infrastructure was the manner in which Moshe Dayan’s policies opened Israeli markets for the movement of Arab labor. Since the early 1970s, Israel began to absorb very large numbers of Arab workers into Israeli construction, services, agriculture and, later on, the industrial sector. These workers were absorbed at the bottom of the occupational pyramid: They did what is known as “black labor” — sometimes the Israelis call it “Arab labor.” It is a phrase which replaced the idiom “Kurdish labor,” because ethnically the bottom of the heap in the Jewish pecking order were the Jewish Kurds who had come from Iraq and Iran. But now the Palestinians from the villages and camps of the West Bank and Gaza began to occupy those arenas of work which were regarded as undesirable by the Jewish work force. This was especially true of the catering and service sector, and in construction as that sector evolved into a deskilled sector of the Israeli economy.

The purpose of this integration of Arab labor was dual. On the one hand, it defused social pressures that would accrue from a high level of unemployment among the Arab population, especially given the fact that Israel now erected immense obstacles in the growth and development of local industries, both in terms of investment and in terms of markets for Palestinian products. It also allowed Israel to develop capital intensive industry to absorb the Jewish work force released from menial jobs by the influx of Arab laborers from the occupied territories. As a result, we have today roughly 100,000 workers commuting daily from camps, villages and urban centers in the West Bank and Gaza to Israel, most of them going back to their villages in the evening. Roughly half of these workers are involved in the construction sector. This group constitutes one third of the total labor force in the West Bank and half the labor force in Gaza.

The third mechanism of integration was markets. The West Bank and Gaza became the most significant market for Israeli commodities, perhaps second only to the US if we include armaments and diamonds. Nearly 90 percent of all goods imported into the Occupied Territories — some $780 million worth in 1986 — come from Israel. This makes up more than 11 percent of Israel’s total exports. The West Bank and Gaza market is tariff-free, they have easy access to it because of its proximity, and of course it is highly non-competitive. The Israelis do not allow Arab commodities to move into the Israeli sector, and at the same time they have thwarted the development of the local industrial manufacturing sector for the Arabs. So the Arabs are very much a captive market for Israeli processed foods which they keep in Israeli-made refrigerators and so forth.

These three mechanisms — infrastructure, labor and markets — must be seen as the institutional building blocks for Israel’s political control of the territories. But they are not themselves the cement of this control. Ultimately, Israel’s control over the territories is political and military, and not socioeconomic. The bonding force behind the political control is the process of land confiscation and settler colonialism which began in 1968. In the first phase, the Labor Party was in control. The idea was to establish Jewish settlements acting as a human belt between Jordan and the West Bank. Israel first established a number of Jewish settlements along the Jordan valley corridor, with an outlet from Jericho to Jordan. The idea was to be able to barter the territories with Jordan against a peace treaty. This was the essence of the plan associated with the name of Yigal Allon, who was deputy prime minister in the early 1970s.

The Likud came to power in the 1977 elections and completely sabotaged the whole perspective of bartering land for peace. In order to preempt any possibility of returning the territories to any form of Arab control, the Likud began a phase of intensive settlement in the densely populated area of central Palestine, the Ramallah-Nablus-Hebron-Jerusalem area. Any attempt to negotiate a territorial deal with any Arab authority — Palestinian or an Arab state — would henceforth trigger a communal conflict within Israel. This was the period when the Likud backed the Gush Emunim, the movement of extreme religious groups associated with the settlement movement, in order to settle Arab-inhabited areas. If you look at a map and you color-code the settlements — there are about 120 now in the West Bank and Gaza — you will see that Labor settlements are dotted around the western Jordan Valley, while Likud-sponsored settlements tend to be in the central highland, in the middle of Arab-populated areas.

These settlements involved extensive land confiscation. It was necessary to take over land from private Arab owners, as well as state or public land, which now reverted to the Jewish National Fund. About 55 percent of the total land area in the West Bank and 30 percent of the total land in Gaza are now in Jewish hands. I say Jewish hands and not Israeli hands intentionally. There is an extra-territorial definition of public land in Israel so that it belongs to the Jews in totality and not to the Israeli Jews in the state of Israel. Israeli citizens who are non-Jews have no access to this land, but Jews who are not Israeli do have access. Many of the settlers in the West Bank and Gaza today are Jews who have just arrived from the Soviet Union, from North America, and to some extent from Latin America. Soviets and Americans have finally found peaceful coexistence in the hills of the West Bank and on the beaches of Gaza.

Before 1977 the ideological nature of the settlers and the physical location of settlements were such that they were controllable. They could be isolated in terms of future political settlements. This is exactly what happened in Sinai, when the settlers were ready to give up the land for significant amounts of compensation. The ideological commitment of the present Jewish settler movement in the West Bank is such that these people are likely to fight against any territorial deal. The Likud knows they are likely to fight, and intentionally backs up their intransigence so that in any negotiations they can say, “Look, we’d like to have peace, but we have our constituency, a large number of our citizens now who consider this to be more their land than Tel Aviv or Haifa, certainly much more than Brooklyn.”

Phases of Resistance

Palestinian resistance to this policy of intransigence has been well documented. It took various forms, it was persistent, it was protracted, it was occasionally violent.

Here I want to contrast two different phases in Palestinian resistance to the policy of integration/annexation. One I call the phase of liberation, and the other the phase of independence. Until the mid-1970s, the Palestinian nationalist movement, in both rhetoric and program, had as its goal the establishment of a secular state in all of Palestine. The means for achieving this goal was armed struggle and protracted people’s war. The Vietnamese/Chinese model was predominant, not only in the minds of the leftist segment of the movement but also in the mainstream Fatah branch.

Since the mid-1970s, and to a large extent as a consequence of the October war in which for the first time there was a stalemate between the military might of Israel and that of the Arab world, a significant shift occurred in the ideological formulations of Palestinian nationalist objectives. That strategy now called for Israeli withdrawal from the Occupied Territories and the establishment of a Palestinian state in those areas from which Israel would withdraw. In other words, the Palestine national movement signaled its willingness to establish a state coexisting with the state of Israel, given certain conditions — among which is the right of Palestinians either to return to those areas in which Israel will remain in full control or to be compensated for their losses.

One consequence of this strategy is that it distinguishes the nature of struggle for Palestinians living in Israel, whose main objective would be equality with Jews, from those living in the West Bank and Gaza, where the focus has become separation and independence. One attribute of this shift is that the language of secular politics is less used than the language of independence and sovereignty. Secularism is still the ideology of the Palestinian national movement, but the movement no longer sees the people of Palestine as belonging to confessions — Muslims, Christians, Jews. Rather, it sees the conflict as basically a national struggle between Arabs and Jews.

In this period, the PLO developed a strategy of building embryonic institutions of power in the occupied territories. First, there was the issue in 1976 of contesting municipal elections against slates of Israeli collaborators. It also meant the development of local institutions like workers' syndicates, professional associations, municipalities and especially universities to serve as institutional components of future power, so that when a Palestinian state arrives it will not arrive in a vacuum. It will already have an infrastructure of political and civic institutions to support it.

One aspect of this strategy of institution-building was also the notion of survival: until the Israelis withdraw, and they’re going to be here for a long time, we need both the political will and the institutional fabric to help us survive these years of land confiscation, repression and deportation. This strategy of informal resistance, if you like, or institutional resistance, was actually far more successful than even its own designers envisioned. By the late 1970s, it had established the complete political hegemony of Palestinian nationalism and the PLO as the single articulator of Palestinian aspirations. And it was in response to this that the Likud introduced the “iron fist” policy in 1981 when it installed Menahem Milson, Arabist and professor of Arabic literature at Hebrew University, to “administer” the West Bank.

Milson thought that Moshe Dayan had left the Arabs alone too long, and had allowed Palestinian nationalism to fester. He proposed a policy of positive interference. Israel should punish the nationalists and support the Palestinians who think “positively,” meaning people who are willing to collaborate. This was part of a general policy which the Likud adopted in the early 1980s, in which the main objective was to smash the bases of PLO power both militarily and politically. The Lebanon campaign was its most violent aspect. A corollary was the political repression of nationalist institutions in the Occupied Territories. Israel disbanded the municipal councils which had been democratically elected in 1976. The military regime, behind the mask of a “civil administration,” began a wave of arrests, detention without charges, deportations and house demolitions, and set up armed militias of collaborators known as the Village Leagues.

The accumulation of these acts of repression, coupled with the increased confiscation of land after 1981, was the prelude to the present uprising. A second phase of the “iron fist” came in 1985, after Yitzhak Rabin became defense minister. Palestinians had successfully defeated Israeli efforts to establish the Village Leagues as a counterweight to the nationalist forces. The economic downturn in the oil-producing Gulf states had closed off an important pressure release valve for young Palestinian job seekers. The PLO and Jordan had engaged in competitive funding and organizing among various sectors. Incidents of confrontation multiplied. Under Rabin, Israel qualitatively intensified its repressive measures, to which the defense minister himself applied the term “iron fist.”

The acts of civil disobedience and confrontation with the military forces that we see today are not radically different from what was happening from 1981 to 1987, certainly since 1985. There were daily, weekly, monthly occurrences, but the dispersed nature of these confrontations made them containable. The Israelis were able to isolate them and, they thought, maintain a pacified population. It was a manageable insurrection.

What is new about the present uprising is both its scale and character. By scale I mean the involvement of large numbers of people who have not participated before — women, children, many workers who used to go to work in Israel and now are on strike for the third month, professionals and shopkeepers who are the lifeline of the economic sectors in the main urban centers.

It’s interesting here to recall Rabin’s remark at the beginning of the uprising, that this was a movement instigated by outside agitators. “We have good people, good Arabs,” Rabin was saying in effect. “There’s a few hotheads being roused by phone calls from Abu Jihad in Tunis.” Two weeks later, the scale of the uprising had taken everybody by surprise — including the Palestinians, by the way. Rabin was in trouble. If indeed the PLO was instigating this, then the PLO was capable of mobilizing the whole population. And so Rabin, very embarrassed, reversed his position. Now we have intelligence reports, he said, which show that this uprising is spontaneous, the work of long years of frustration and festering wounds of unresolved Palestinian nationalism. But Rabin was still in trouble: either way it was a crisis the Israelis were not able to handle. Rabin and the Israeli defense establishment decided that it’s better to deal with the spontaneity of the masses rather than the clout of the PLO.

Consequences of the Uprising

Rabin’s dilemma points to the major significance of the uprising: Its scale and durability has created an unprecedented challenge to Israeli control. Israel can no longer govern “the territories.”

This important point is occasionally obscured by the media’s attention to questions of riot control technique: Which combination of live ammunition, beatings, tear gas and rubber bullets will bring the Palestinian population to heel? The latest device, introduced in mid-March, is a “Catapulter”: Manifesting a creative synthesis between Palestinian ecology and Israeli know-how, the machine is composed of a large rock basket and a revolving turret which can spit hundreds of medium-sized stones with high velocity at troublemakers. The problem, of course, is that the harder the Israelis try, the more pathetic their attempts look. The image of the valiant encircled David has been shattered beyond repair. To add insult to injury, his slingshot has been appropriated — and very skillfully — by the children of Nablus and Hebron and the hundreds of villages of the West Bank and Gaza.

What it boils down to, ultimately, is that the greatest military power in the Mediterranean can no longer subdue the spontaneous defiance of a civilian population whose only armament is street stones and lack of fear.

Secondly, the uprising signifies a shift in the center of gravity of Palestinian politics, from the Palestinian diaspora communities in Lebanon, Syria and Jordan to the territories occupied by Israel in 1967. This shift began in the mid-1970s. Its landmarks were the 1974 Palestine National Council resolution calling for an independent state in the West Bank and Gaza, the contestation of the municipal election of 1976, and the institution-building strategy I described earlier. Where the external PLO leadership once led the internal movement under occupation, today the internal movement sets the tone for the formulation of Palestinian politics outside.

Thirdly, the uprising is significant also because it involved not only the West Bank and Gaza but, for the first time, full participation of Israel’s Arab citizens in the Galilee and elsewhere. There have been instances of Palestinian solidarity across the Green Line before, but not on this scale and not in this manner. The general strike on December 21 was unprecedented. It was a signal to the Israelis that if they continue along this road, then they will have to deal not only with the Arabs of the territories but with “their” Arabs as well.

A fourth and very important consequence of the insurrection is that it created an instrument of political unification for all the various Palestinian factions that have so far been divided. There’s something now called the Unified National Command of the Uprising, which has been issuing directives. The population has actually responded to and followed these directives in terms of strikes, confrontations, and civil disobedience. Furthermore, the revolutionary rhetoric of the current uprising is matched by an intensely pragmatic grasp of what the masses can and cannot do. It sets the limits of popular participation but also assumes that its scope will move in ever-widening circles. Thus one would hope that the present movement will avoid the pitfalls of the 1936 revolt which, by 1938, had fallen into brigandage.

Finally, at the political level, I think the uprising has defeated the notion that the physical, economic, infrastructural integration of the West Bank and Gaza into the body of the state of Israel creates irreversible facts. This has been the position of the school of thought associated with Meron Benvenisti, and on the Palestinian side with people like Sari Nusseibeh. Integration has proceeded too far, they said. The best we can hope for now is a fight for civic equality, for enfranchisement. It is quite remarkable that it took Palestinian children just a few days of street rage to demolish this bizarre argument of structural determinism in its entirety. I think it’s clear, from both the Palestinian and Israeli perspectives, that separation is the only way, and separation along the lines of Palestinian sovereignty is becoming a very clear-cut option for the future.

You seem to agree with Rabin’s second diagnosis, that the uprisings are the result of accumulated frustration and grievances.

I cited Rabin to give you a clue what Israeli strategists are thinking, not because I agree with his assessment. I think the word frustration is not the right one. Frustration is what you feel when your beloved has not returned your amorous overtures. What we have here is repression. It’s not a psychological state of mind, but a political response to a physical state of affairs. The word frustration obfuscates the relationship between Israel and the Occupied Territories. One, because it obscures the hierarchical form of control. Two, because it misconstrues the nature of the response, which is not a mindless volcanic eruption but a politically motivated act, spontaneous but with clear political objectives: We want independence, we don’t want you to be here, we want you to get out! The fact that it uses crude instruments of warfare, like stones, should not detract from the clarity of the political message behind it.

You say it was spontaneous, not directed from outside?

Spontaneity and direction from outside are not necessarily exclusive categories. There is no question that in the initial phase of the uprising, the element of spontaneity was predominant, and it involved young street gangs who were not necessarily part and parcel of the national movement. It also involved a fundamentalist current in Gaza which was outside the domain of the PLO. However, by the second week, it was clear that the political currents were involved. And the manifestoes issued by the Unified Command made it clear that they consider themselves part and parcel of the PLO. It’s not a question of PLO or not PLO, but two dimensions of the Palestinian national movement.

There is a high degree of coordination between them, but they are not the same, because of physical dislocation and because of the differential weight of these components of the PLO. It’s clear, for example, that the weight of the Muslim fundamentalist groups is much higher inside than outside, in Gaza than in the West Bank. In summary, I would say that the element of spontaneity took the movement unaware, but it soon gathered its momentum.

Today I think there’s no question that the uprising is being directed — not from the outside but from the inside. The outside has become aware of the political weight of the inside. Ultimately your question is this: what exactly is the organic link between Fatah and the Popular Front and the Democratic Front, as far as their internal cadres are concerned, with the external leadership. This is something I cannot answer.

Why is the PLO directing Palestinians not to talk to Shultz?

Shultz’s visit is in the great American tradition of refusing to deal with the Palestinian question realistically. The US so far has been backing the most extreme interpretation of Israel’s future rule over the territories, and has not considered negotiating a territorial settlement with the Palestinians themselves. It is Shultz who refuses to meet with the Palestinians. Shultz in the past has met with Palestinians, with a small “p” if you like, the kind of Palestinians who in his eyes are willing to circumvent the leadership chosen by the Palestinian people to represent them. Why don’t the Palestinians meet with Shultz and tell him that? I think the problem is that Shultz knows the situation. They know that he knows that. And he knows why they would meet with him if he changes the conditions of the encounter.

It’s clear that many Palestinians today are willing to contemplate interim solutions to the Palestinian problem, including forms of autonomy, provided that these interim solutions are negotiated with the Palestinian leadership, and not with Palestinian collaborators. It’s now clear that the Palestinian leadership is willing to contemplate a solution which accepts a sovereign state of Israel side by side with a state of Palestine. But sovereignty must be the object of these negotiations, not “autonomy” under Israeli hegemony.

How do you evaluate the role of settler intransigence in arriving at some kind of settlement?

This is the situation we’re facing now: If Israel remains in control of the territories, by the year 2010 Arabs and Jews may achieve demographic parity in Palestine — there might be as many Arabs as there are Jews. 1987 was the first year since 1948 in which there were as many Arab babies born as Jewish babies in the Holy Land, which was Golda Meir’s nightmare. What do you do about these demographics? Labor thinks that the sooner they get rid of the territories, the better. At least the dovish wing of the Labor Party. This is the preoccupation of — let’s call it the left of the Israeli political establishment. The right wants to have its cake and eat it at the same time — they want the land, and they want Jewish sovereignty, and they don’t want to treat the Palestinians as citizens. Now the extreme right, of course wants the land without the people, and the extreme right is gaining ground in Israel. But it’s false to see Israel as a place in which only right extremism is gaining. Significant sectors of the Jewish public and the Jewish political parties are taking more courageous steps in the direction of negotiation with the Palestinians. It’s unfortunate that part of the motivation for peace is racist fears of demographic parity. But this is something that works in our favor and we should thank the Lord for these small mercies. The uprising has been the latest phase in making this dent in the collective Israeli consciousness: One, you cannot continue like this; and two, the West Bank and Gaza have become ungovernable. The sooner we come to a solution, the better for everybody.

What are the prospects for sustaining the uprising?

It’s hard to tell. Already it has gone beyond the wildest expectations of most people, Israelis and Arabs. Part of it is youthful enthusiasm. But what’s critical is that all people are participating with the same enthusiasm of these young people. They will have to devise mechanisms of durability in the coming months. Otherwise it’s impossible to imagine how a shopkeeper economy can sustain an uprising of this sort. Already they have been very imaginative about it. For example, confrontation and sabotage is being coordinated in such a way that it does not put too much pressure on any one area or sector. The problem is going to be with the workers who work in Israel. We’re talking about 100,000 people, roughly one third of the total labor force, who live from the daily wages they receive in Israel. Unless the rest of the population can share their resources with these people, the uprising is bound to take different forms of political opposition.

What can you say about the role of the Muslim fundamentalists, particularly given the unified command that’s been set up?

Within the Palestinian national movement, the Muslim currents always were very hostile to the PLO because the PLO was a secular movement which was also colored by leftism. The whole idiom and vision of a future Palestinian society put forth by the PLO was distasteful to the Muslim currents. I see this clearly because one of the ideological battlegrounds has been the university campuses. Recently, around 1983-1984, the Muslim Brothers and perhaps other less radical wings began to find accommodation with the national movement. In return, the price paid by the national movement was to begin to consider the Islamist currents as legitimate strands of opposition within Palestinian society. Until then relations between these two currents were quite tense and sometimes violent. In fact, the national movement always considered the Muslim currents to be almost treasonous. There were cases where we know that the Israeli security establishment collaborated with the Muslim currents. For example, in Umm al-Fahm in the Galilee in the 1970s, Israel did supply arms to the Muslim groups. Some of these groups passed on the guns, or sold them, we're not sure, to members of Fatah. When it was exposed, the whole thing created a scandal in the defense establishment. I’m not saying that the Muslim Brothers in Umm al-Fahm were agents of the Israeli state, but certainly there was a level of manipulation.

In Gaza, the security establishment allowed the Muslim Brothers to attack the Red Crescent Society and the Communists without interference. On two occasions they burned liquor stores in Gaza, and the security establishment did nothing. So it’s clear that the Israelis saw the Muslim currents as an asset in the battle against Palestinian nationalism. By 1983-1984 this picture changed and two things happened. In Gaza, the Muslim currents began to gain ground, both organizationally and in terms of sympathy from the population. Also, and perhaps these two are related, they began to talk politics. For example, in the platforms of contesting university elections they don’t have an ideological platform, they have what you might call a service platform: We will fight to reduce fees, we will talk with the administration about improving the food in the cafeteria, things which were always in the platform of the secular blocs. So there was, if you like, a certain degree of moderation in their politics which had a return on this investment in terms of increased adherence to their bloc.

There is also within Fatah, which is the biggest movement in the underground in the West Bank, a certain sympathy with the Muslim currents. Fatah itself is a mixture of several ideological currents. A certain wing of it is very sympathetic to the religious branch. So I think what we’re seeing now is a form of symbiosis that has its positive and negative consequences. It’s good because the maximum amount of unity is necessary. Its negative aspects draw from the fact that the Palestinians have always prided themselves on being a secular society and a secular movement, and today they are being infested by Khomeinism.

How do you see Palestinians obtaining their political demands?

We can say the stones are the building blocks of the future mode of struggle. The stones will not become guns, because Palestinians in the territories do not have access to arms. The boys in the streets have proved to be more effective in using forms of civil disobedience than those with guns. But this has to be translated into political terms, which are the following: that we are willing to negotiate, and we have the power to negotiate. We can veto any political option that does not meet our minimum. This is what they are saying. We are willing to negotiate if you come halfway in our direction. Halfway means that we will discuss interim solutions for solving the Palestinian problem, including autonomy, if we know that autonomy will evolve into sovereignty. For that to occur, two things are necessary: for Israel to disabuse itself of the notion that it can negotiate with everybody except the Palestinians — and this is very necessary — and for Washington to ally itself with this new position that Israel will have to arrive at. One would hope Congress would be affected by the current political mood both in Israel and in the world at large, so as to make a more realistic assessment of what the Palestinians want and therefore bring the Palestinians themselves to a more realistic formulation of their demands. I think these shifts are likely to happen dramatically — for example, new elections, a single incident, or maybe a dramatic gesture can push things very suddenly in a new direction. I think the atmosphere is very fertile for this at the moment.

How to cite this article:

Salim Tamari "What the Uprising Means," Middle East Report 152 (May/June 1988).

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