The streets of Ramallah, unlike those of most other West Bank cities, are usually free of Israeli soldiers. Despite appearances, however, the army has stamped its control on the West Bank’s capital as certainly as its tanks have left deep tread marks on the city’s main roads.
Nowadays soldiers move in only occasionally from their entrenched positions around the city to patrol the streets, make arrests or further humiliate the Palestinian president, Yasser Arafat. Their power is so absolute they have little need to assert it.
The besieged militants of Ramallah, at least those not dead or imprisoned, are apparently as cowed as Arafat, who has been holed up since December 2001 in the Muqata, surrounded by mountains of rubble which were once the buildings of his large compound of district offices. Israeli bulldozers have been on repeated wrecking sprees around the site.
The PA in the city, as in other areas of the Palestinian territories, has been effectively castrated.
Ramallans, still afforded the privilege of sitting and debating in stylish coffee shops, are among the first to ask whether the Intifada has hit a dead-end — whether it has exhausted its energy to resist the suffocating grip of the Israeli military reoccupation. To many it looks that way.
The wave of suicide bombers that terrorised Israelis in their own cities for many months has dried up: there has not been a Hamas suicide bombing since late November nor a Fatah one since early January.
According to military research recently ordered by Defence Minister Shaul Mofaz, the Israeli army has been foiling 17 suicide attackers for every one that gets through.
Possibly partly in response, Hamas appears now to favour striking military targets in the territories. But periodic successes like a bomb blast that killed four soldiers in a tank 12 days ago or a batch of Kassam missiles that rained down on the small Negev town of Sderot last week lightly injuring a forklift truck driver look from Ramallah like the last gasps of Gaza’s militants before the army closes its steel fist around the Strip in the same way it has the West Bank. Many expect just such a final assault on Gaza under the cover of the impending war in Iraq.
Even without reoccupying Gaza, Israel was apparently able to take immediate revenge for the tank explosion. It was blamed for assassinating six Hamas leaders in Gaza City who were testing a pilotless plane in which a bomb was hidden. The next day the army shot dead the military leader of Hamas, Riyad Abu- Zeid, in a botched attempt to arrest him southwest of Bureij refugee camp. Both incidents suggested that Israeli intelligence has been strengthened by the army’s control of the territories, through the reinvigoration of Israel’s network of collaborators and informers. According to the daily Ha’aretz newspaper, Chief of Staff Moshe Yaalon confidently predicts that the army may be able to end Palestinian resistance within a month. To all appearances, that optimistic view is shared by the Palestinian Authority’s leadership.
At the weekend, as the army continued its deep incursions into Gaza, Mahmoud Abbass (Abu-Mazen) issued a call on behalf of the PA for a one-year halt to armed attacks by Palestinians, in effect a demilitarisation of the Intifada. He added that when Israeli military aggression persisted “everyone will be shown who is guilty for the continuation of the conflict”.
Abu-Mazen’s call followed on the heels of pacifying gestures by Arafat, who has announced that he will be appointing a prime minister and who sent a delegation to London last week to discuss constitutional reforms.
These concessions were made under European and American duress: Arafat is only too aware that he is high on the list of suitable cases for “regime change” after a war in Iraq.
Israel’s assessment is that the attention of the Arab world is focussed on Iraq for the time being rather than the Palestinians. Earlier this month the head of Israel’s National Security Council, Ephraim Halevy, told the Munich Conference on Security Policy that most Arab regimes would not object to Arafat’s removal. Israel is stepping up the wider pressure too: last week it warned that should the various Palestinian factions not agree to a cease-fire at the ongoing negotiations in Cairo it would declare an all-out war. Given its reoccupation of the West Bank, that was assumed to be a threat that the army would soon inflict the same fate on Gaza.
Does all this signify, as Israel and many Ramallans suspect, that the Intifada is finally running out of steam? Can it be written off as a spent cause?
Not according to leading Palestinian political analysts, who believe that a lull in the grassroots Intifada, the armed — but popularly supported — resistance to Israel’s military occupation, is being confused with the apparent surrender by the Palestinian Authority to outside pressures.
“The Intifada is the normal relationship between the occupied and the occupier,” said Ali Jerbawi, a politics professor from Bir Zeit University and the man appointed by Arafat to oversee the planned Palestinian national elections later this year.
“There has been Intifada after Intifada since 1967, interrupted only between 1995 and 2000 when it mistakenly looked as though Israel was engaged in a genuine peace process. This Intifada will run out of steam only if Palestinians are persuaded that they are being offered a meaningful process leading to a Palestinian state. Otherwise, the current round of violent measure and counter-measure will continue. At the moment, Israel’s measures are on the rise and Palestinian counter-measures on the wane. But that will doubtless change.”
He argues that the Intifada’s true purpose is to clarify the nature of the confrontation between Israelis and Palestinians, the occupier and the occupied. He says Israel created the Palestinian Authority to establish a layer between the two, “a public address” through which Israel could control the Palestinian people indirectly.
“Whatever Israel and the Americans claim, in reality the PA cannot be part of the Intifada. At the moment Israel and the US are trying to reestablish this layer so that they can kill the Intifada.”
According to Israeli press reports, Sharon is hoping to reshape the Palestinian Authority through Israeli-directed “reforms” that would see Arafat removed or shunted aside into a role as a symbolic leader. A technocratic leadership would be installed under the prime ministership of current Finance Minister Salam Fayyad and the vice-presidency of Arafat’s number two, Abu-Mazen.
But few believe that such changes, even if approved by Arafat, will satisfy most Palestinians, or the armed groups leading the Intifada.
Last week a Fatah group calling itself the Popular Army of the Aqsa Martyrs Brigades threatened to foil Yasser Arafat’s bid to appoint a prime minister by launching attacks against Israel. “We will resist by force any new Karzai in Palestine,” said a statement issued by the group in Nablus, referring to the US- imposed Afghan president, Hamid Karzai.
“It’s not about appointing prime ministers or ending corruption in the PA. Neither will bring an end to the Intifada, which is directed against Israel’s illegal occupation,” said one leading political analyst who wished not to be named.
“The Intifada will only end if the PA has something tangible to present to the Palestinian people and so can reassert its control. At the moment the only obvious candidate is the roadmap [the United States's plan for the establishment of a Palestinian state by 2005] but the signs are not encouraging that it will develop into anything credible as far as creating a viable Palestinian state.”
He added: “Hamas, Islamic Jihad and many of the Fatah factions are currently united in a single purpose: defying the PA. Striking against Israel is also hitting against the PA when the Authority is seen as standing in the way of the Intifada by trying to placate Israel.”
George Giacaman, head of Muwatin, the Palestinian Institute for the Study of Democracy based in Ramallah, questions whether there is any meaningful way in which Sharon can defeat the Intifada.
“How much more can he increase his firepower to secure a decisive military victory? I’m not sure we will see white flags being waved from Palestinian windows any time soon and that in the end is what a victory over the Intifada would require.
“Instead we are witnessing a war of attrition. Both sides are waiting for the other to tire but it won’t happen.
“Among the Palestinians at the moment there is a free-for-all, with no central authority. No one is managing the conflict and so it is possible that anyone could take the initiative from here on — Hamas, groups within Fatah or outside actors allied to Iran or Syria.”
Like other analysts, he believes Israel will have to confront the long-term consequences of refusing to create a viable Palestinian state.
“The Intifada is a dynamic process,” he said. “In a few decades, if there is no solution, the nature of the conflict will change. Instead of throwing stones or firing Kassam missiles from behind fences, Palestinians may demand not their own state but the right to be Israeli citizens with the vote. That of course is the nightmare scenario for Israelis.”
Saleh Abdul-Jawad, a politics lecturer at Bir Zeit University, points out that after nearly two and a half years the Intifada is inflicting ever greater damage on Israel’s economy, its most visible success. Huge sums of military aid and loans from the US will be needed to prop up the army’s military campaigns.
International pressure is also likely to grow for Israel to take on its responsibilities for caring for the populations of the territories — itself a potentially huge financial burden. Refusal to do so will further erode Israel’s image abroad, particularly in Europe.
Jawad warns that writing off the Intifada reflects an unhelpful trend to place limits on the scope of the uprising. “Because this Intifada quickly became militarised people tend to forget that children are still throwing stones and old women cursing soldiers, the staples of the first Intifada.
“Let’s remember that just going about your daily life under this kind of occupation — travelling to work, going to school under curfew, crossing the checkpoints — is resistance to the occupation.”