Standing on a platform in the central traffic circle of the West Bank city of Ramallah, a number of speakers urged a crowd of roughly 300 to continue the Palestinian intifada that completed its third year on September 28, 2003. The men pledged their support to President Yasser Arafat, confined since December 2001 to two rooms of the Palestinian Authority compound a few blocks away. They demanded the release of Marwan Barghouti, the Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC) member imprisoned by Israel since April 2002 for his activities as a popular leader of the uprising. As the orators shouted these exhortations, a small contingent of boy and girls scouts from the nearby al-Am’ari refugee camp snaked past the platform, the drums of their marching band muffling the speakers’ words. Ten adolescent boys raced yelling down the street, briefly sharpening the vague anticipation that Israeli army jeeps would enter town, but word quickly spread that it was only a scuffle between teenagers. Apparently uninterested in either the sloganeering or the earnest drumming of the scouts, the onlookers resumed milling about, raising their voices so that their conversations could be heard over the loudspeakers. Finally, prompted by some inaudible command, the crowd began to move. At the beginning of the uprising, demonstrators had frequently headed out near Israeli checkpoints on the edge of town, but on this day, the marchers meandered around the block, returning to the spot they had vacated a few minutes earlier.
It was an apt symbol for prevailing opinions of the achievements of the intifada to date. After three years, the two targets of the uprising—the Israeli occupation and the Palestinian Authority (PA)—still stand. Most Palestinians admit that, in many respects, their personal and collective political status has in fact deteriorated. Militant groups’ attacks on Israeli civilians inside the Green Line, such as the October 4 suicide bombing that killed 19 Israelis in Haifa, continue to arouse deep disquiet among Palestinians, disquiet that is not limited to fear of Israeli reprisal. Confusion reigns: what have we achieved? Where are we going? What is coming next? Nobody seems to know. Qaddoura Faris, head of the Palestinian Political Prisoners’ Association, PLC deputy and current candidate for a ministerial post, answered these questions of the hour with a laugh half-sheepish and half-cynical, “Even we don’t know.”
Shrugs of the Shoulders
An even starker indicator of the general state of befuddlement in the Occupied Territories is the fact that Palestinians have stopped trying to guess what is coming next. Until recently, ever-changing theories and speculation about “the situation” (as it is popularly known) threaded through conversations in coffee shops and around dinner tables. Although the mostly low-intensity warfare in the West Bank and Gaza has ebbed and flowed in accordance with the largely obscure strategic calculations of the Israeli military and Palestinian militant groups, someone was always ready with a thumbnail political analysis. No matter how flimsy the evidence upon which such theories might be based, there were always ideas—expressed with varying degrees of certainty—of what Palestinians could expect in the future. But not now. Not only does no one venture a guess, no one can be bothered to try. A shrug of the shoulders, a roll of the eyes and a tired frown are all that meet inquiries. Only when pressed do formerly prolific armchair analysts offer indifferent commentary: the intifada is over. People are tired. People need a break. The intifada will start again after a break, maybe after ten years. An agreement worse than the 1993 Oslo accord is about to be signed. People have learned nothing. We don’t know what we want. We just want to live. We want peace.
Since the Israeli cabinet voted in mid-September to “remove” Arafat at some undetermined time, large crowds have periodically marched through Ramallah vocalizing their solidarity with “Abu Ammar,” the nom de guerre by which the PA leader is often addressed. A host of political and professional organizations announce their support for Arafat in the daily newspapers, but others offer a continuous stream of derisive jokes. Question: what does it really mean when Abu Ammar holds up two fingers in the “V for victory” sign? Answer: two rooms! Two rooms! Another magazine caricature depicts Arafat putting together a puzzle, the completed part of which spells the word, “Abu.” Arafat is replacing the neighboring pieces that spelled out “Mazen” with “Alaa’,” references to the outgoing and incoming prime ministers, Mahmoud Abbas and Ahmad Qurei, whom he has appointed within a few months of each other. One coffee shop patron listening to a description of this cartoon muttered, “God willing, next it will be Abu Zift (a polite translation of which would be ‘Mr. Nothing’).”
General consensus holds that it does not matter who is appointed prime minister; nothing good will come out of the recurrent ministerial maneuverings, or the new “emergency” cabinet sworn into office on October 7. “We have no trust in anything,” a schoolteacher summarized. “Nobody is paying attention to the new government,” said a social worker in Hebron. A recent poll reported a large majority of respondents saying the same thing. “The situation” is not moving in any particular direction, despite the fact that Israeli forces have been killing a steady stream of Islamist activists in the summer and early fall, and that Islamist groups have retaliated with bombings inside Israel. Six “senior” Islamist militants have been assassinated in Hebron since the campaign began. In mid-September, an activist was killed when the Israeli army destroyed the house in which he was hiding, crushing him under the rubble. The demolished house’s residents, a woman and her disabled seven-year old son, are now living in a yellow tent beside the wreckage. “He cries every night and wails that the Israelis shot his favorite toy car,” said the haggard mother.
Walled Off Demonstration
Slightly more enthusiasm was mustered for a third anniversary march held in Qalqilya, the town most directly affected by the “separation wall” Israel is building around and through the West Bank. Qalqilya is nearly encircled by imposing parapets of concrete 25 feet high. The single entrance into town at the Qalqilya checkpoint, surrounded by Israeli soldiers who open and close it arbitrarily, has become a routine fact of life. “They say they are going to put doors in the wall to let workers and farmers get out to make a living, but it’s just for public relations,” one resident commented. The wall is not primarily about security for Israel, people in Qalqilya say, but is rather a means for Israel to squeeze out the Palestinian residents, appropriate their land and further exploit the water in the major underground aquifer in the West Bank.
On September 28, the various political factions in Qalqilya sent representatives to a demonstration to “show off,” in the words of one local photojournalist. His words express a not uncommon view of masked men carrying weapons, who were once considered proud icons of Palestinian armed resistance to the occupation, but are now seen by some as nothing but braggarts representing acts of superficial defiance. Despite the gathering of young activists, an official of the Qalqilya municipality went so far as to say that he would never take part in such a march, and that he and many others were “against the intifada.” While the official was clearly telling his audience of foreigners what he thought they wanted to hear, it would have been almost unthinkable for someone, especially a Palestinian in his position, to utter such an apostasy two years ago.
In Abu Dis, a small rally and some stone throwing marked the intifada’s third anniversary. The separation wall slices through this town immediately southeast of Jerusalem, and the rumble of trucks and bulldozers can be heard non-stop, as building proceeds apace. Occasionally, children hurl rocks at the construction trucks, but Israeli security forces surrounding the area shoot readily, discouraging any greater shows of opposition. From the roof of one family’s house located just on the Jerusalem side of the wall, the extended path of construction is visible. A patch of land is being prepared for a new settlement just a city block away, and workers trying to get back and forth to their jobs in Jerusalem can be seen scurrying through the valley just in front of the house. The previous week, soldiers set an ambush in their path, sending the workers fleeing from gunfire.
One night, residents of a house located close to the projected settlement in the same valley were awakened by soldiers. Israeli soldiers pulled them from their beds and transported them to the checkpoint on the edge of Bethlehem. Since their identity cards indicate that they are from the West Bank, the soldiers informed them, the West Bank is where they should be. The message seemed to be that these people, who had lived in Abu Dis their whole lives, were suddenly trespassers in Jerusalem. As the wall slowly goes up and places everything to its west on the “Israeli” side, Israeli Jerusalem is growing into the West Bank, isolating Abu Dis and making the town’s residents “illegal.” Qurei, the recently confirmed prime minister, is a native of Abu Dis. But nobody there seems to expect much from him either.
“Ghetto Abu Dis” is scrawled in English across one section of the line of concrete barriers that represents the first installment of the wall cutting though town. Projected to reach a height of 26-30 feet, the barriers are now only about 10 feet tall, and young people can hoist themselves over the top in order to pass between Jerusalem and the town. Others squeeze through a small opening at an intersection where taxis drop off passengers coming from Jerusalem. Sometimes the soldiers ignore this arduous form of transit; at other times, they stop it. “It depends on the soldiers,” a shop owner near the opening explained. Enforcers of the Israeli occupation are now deemed “humanitarian” and “good” if they let people clamber over rocks to get home. No one has easy answers for why people in Abu Dis appear to be taking the construction of the wall with such relative equanimity.
While some Palestinians declare that the intifada is over, and has been for some time, intifada-like activity flares up here and there. For example, every afternoon around 3 pm, after returning from school and finishing lunch, about 20 boys begin whistling and throwing stones at the Israeli soldiers occupying the Rachel’s Tomb checkpoint near Aida refugee camp in Bethlehem. The soldiers throw sound bombs and tear gas, the children run away and the residents of the camp are left choking in their homes. A soldier who had ventured a bit deeper into the alleyways of the camp stopped a shop owner and told him to inform the children that he was going on lunch break, but he would be back in an hour to continue their “game.” On another day, the soldiers could be heard calling out to the children from their microphones: “Come out and play!” The children obliged. A few days later, the soldiers came down the main road, took over the first house on the edge of the camp and fired canisters of tear gas from the roof for two hours.
Residents of Bethlehem complain that the young protesters do not have a clear understanding of the significance of their acts. To the boys, the residents say, stone throwing is just a game. Worse, they know that the soldiers are treating it as a game as well. These children are unguided, complained L., a leader during the first uprising in 1987-1993. “They shout and curse the soldiers. They have no message, though,” L. continued. “When we used to demonstrate, we gathered huge crowds. We knew we were not going to liberate Palestine with stones, but we were letting the Israelis know that we rejected the occupation. I called the press and the Red Cross to come and witness our acts of refusal. We shouted slogans that carried the message of our refusal. These children have none of that.”
In Search of Balance
The scattershot and lukewarm demonstrations that marked the third anniversary of the second intifada are a reflection of the state of confusion that has afflicted all the political parties. Most insist that the intifada is far from over. But there are major debates about how it can continue. Widespread reevaluation of the intifada’s tactics, in particular their “militarization” early on, began well over a year ago, prompted in large part by the massive Israeli invasions of the West Bank that culminated in the destruction of large parts of Jenin refugee camp in April 2002. Efforts to return to the popular methods of collective strikes and civil disobedience that characterized the first intifada gathered support. On the second anniversary of the current uprising, the coordinating committee of the intifada issued a communiqué calling for a “Day of Anger” to mark the occasion. Despite the curfew that the Israeli army had enforced in many towns, the demonstrations and other non-military group actions they organized attracted sizable crowds.
But such efforts did not endure. The political parties are weak, and they have no popular following. “In comparison to the marches this year, [during the first intifada] we were able to organize major events,” L. explained.”Because, with a lot of effort, our secret organizations personally convinced people to attend the demonstrations. People were willing to follow us because they had our trust and support. We provided services, we negotiated solutions to social and economic problems. People were with us and we had an organized program of anti-occupation activities. But the political parties today are out of touch with the people.”
Among the parties, there are contradicting opinions on what form any continuation of the intifada might take. Some, like Hamas and Islamic Jihad, support attacks inside Israel, while others say that military strikes should be focused on soldiers and settlers within the 1967 borders of the Occupied Territories. As PLC member Faris said, “It is true that as an occupied people we have the right to exercise all forms of resistance. But this does not mean that we have to exercise that right at all times.” In Faris’ opinion, the struggle for Palestinian independence has to focus just as much on the international arena and public opinion as on what happens on the ground. Still others, such as those gathering around al-Mubadara (Initiative), organized by NGO leader Mustapha Barghouthi, focus on non-violent forms of resistance and reconstruction of civil society. “We should find a balance between these positions,” offered L., “but there is no general consensus.”
Situation of”The Situation”
Not only has the parties’ state of disorganization obstructed the growth of a popular intifada, the Palestinian Authority has little interest in fostering such a movement. A unified leadership such as that which directed the first intifada would be a threat to the PA’s power. What is more, many in the PA have financial ties to Israel. Boycotts of Israeli goods would harm the investments of such people as Abu Alaa’, as well as Palestinian security heads Jibril Rajoub and Tawfiq Tirawi, among others.
Among most Palestinians, there is no faith in the PA. The political parties have no clear program. Even the Islamist movement carried by Hamas and Islamic Jihad has begun to reevaluate its tactics. While publicly Hamas insists that Palestinians have the right to exercise all forms of resistance, including attacks inside Israel, they know that much of the international community is against them, not just the US and the Europeans. Even the Arab governments have labeled such attacks “terrorist.” There are also rumors that Islamic Jihad is about to break apart as a result of conflicting opinions among members about the appropriateness of attacks in Israel, such as the Haifa bombing for which Islamic Jihad was responsible. Many Palestinians reacted to that bombing, which killed a number of Palestinian citizens of Israel, with consternation. The timing was wrong, the place was wrong. People can again be heard publicly insisting that such attacks cause more harm than good to the Palestinian cause. “Rather than a bombing every of couple weeks, attacks should be more carefully organized, aimed at precise targets, soldiers, settlers,” offered one university student. A journalist suggested that a bomb should go off every day inside Israel, but not to harm people. “Israeli security should receive a phone call every day telling them that a bomb is about to go off in this or that garbage can. Let them close off streets, evacuate neighborhoods. Israelis should be made to live in a state of constant fear and chaos, such as what they have imposed on us.”
At the same time, Palestinians believe that increasingly durable Israeli “facts on the ground”—settlements, bypass roads, checkpoints—foreclose the prospect that “the situation” will be resolved peaceably any time soon. For Palestinians throughout the West Bank, the separation wall in particular renders laughable any talk of negotiations or reinstatement of the US-sponsored “road map.” “The Israeli government’s recent decision to provide the budget necessary for the second stage of wall construction means they are going ahead as they like,” a man from a Bethlehem refugee camp explained. “It means that soon we’ll need something like a visa just to get to Ramallah. The cantons are hardening.” Delayed at a checkpoint sitting in a taxi, this man overheard another passenger joking, “They gave us the map, but took away the road!”
In L.’s analysis, the Palestinian population as a whole is tired. “But they do not want the intifada to end. After sacrificing so much, more than during any other period of Palestinian history, it can’t just end like that. But what they want, and who will guide them to it, are unanswered questions right now.” The disappearance of any popular character to the uprising not long after it began left the Palestinian majority feeling abandoned on the sidelines. L. summed up the situation of “the situation”: “People think that it is all out of their hands. There is nothing for them to do. But also, there is nothing the world is doing for us.”
CORRECTION: Due to an editorial error, in the e-mail version of this article, an activist identified as L. was quoted as saying, “In comparison to the marches this year, [in 2002] we were able to organize major events.” In fact, L. was referring to “major events” organized during the 1987-1993 intifada.