The tense edge of the Arab uprising has been sharpened in recent weeks by acts of small-scale terrorism and intimidation that hint at the potential for greater violence in both the Israeli and Palestinian communities.
The most notable outbreaks have centered on efforts to intimidate dovish voices on both sides. Although the coincidence is striking, there is no clear sign of a tit-for-tat increase in most extremist acts among Israelis or Arabs. Rather, observers say, the outbreak reflects efforts of radical members of both communities to upset trends they consider traitorous.
In the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip, Arabs who have ventured to Israeli public forums to present their points of view have received warnings, in one case at knife point, against keeping up such contacts.
“There is a feeling among some Palestinians, especially the younger ones, that things are getting out of hand, that people having contact with the Israelis are offering too much without asking the ones who are in the streets dying,” said Saeb Erakat, an editor of the East Jerusalem Arabic-language newspaper Al Quds.
The local backlash against dovish Arabs has been building for more than a month as their meetings with Israeli peace proponents have grown more numerous.
Last week in Nablus, the largest and most combative anti-Israeli city on the West Bank, young Arabs broke into the homes of six Palestinian activists, pointed knives at them and warned each to stop seeing the Israelis. Failure to comply would mean death, one target of the threats later recounted.
The warnings were attributed to members of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, a Marxist faction of the Palestine Liberation Organization.
Factional identification aside, criticism of informal Israeli-Arab meetings is widespread in the West Bank and Gaza, Palestinians say.
“Lots of people are wondering, ‘Why talk to the doves? Arabs are still getting shot. What does it get us?’ ” said Arab journalist Daoud Kutab.
In Jericho recently, a group of young street organizers of the Arab uprising, or intifada, as it is known in Arabic, expressed opposition to the meetings to Faisal Husseini, considered a top PLO operative in the West Bank. Husseini himself had been involved in several talks not only with dovish Israelis but also with Israeli authorities who have been floating various peace plans.
The Arab rebels believe that the Israeli government is using the dialogue to split the Arab leadership and as a substitute for talks with the PLO aimed at setting up an independent Palestinian state. On Monday, the clandestine Unified National Leadership of the Uprising in the Occupied Territories issued a written warning against meetings with Israelis that take up any subject other than ratifying the PLO as the representative of Palestinians.
‘They Are Very Wary’
“The young activists have no connections with peace groups or authorities. They are very wary,” said Erakat, who lives in Jericho.
The climate of suspicion has contributed to a renewed spate of killings of suspected collaborators, Palestinian sources say. Over the weekend in the Gaza Strip, two suspected collaborators were beaten and stabbed to death, Arab sources say, adding that both were informers.
The body of one, Jamel Abdel Hamid, was found Saturday behind a school in the Rimal neighborhood of Gaza City. Graffiti on a wall near his home accused him of cooperating with the Israelis. The deadly message was signed by Hamas, an Islamic fundamentalist group.
The corpse of the other victim was found in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip. They were the eighth and ninth suspected collaborators to be killed since the new year; 14 deaths of suspected collaborators were reported last year.
The army denied that either of the victims was an agent and said that an investigation of their deaths showed “the men were killed as a result of an internal feud of a criminal nature.” Arabs counter that a criminal record does not disqualify someone from active collusion with Israel; sometimes, criminals are recruited on the threat that if they fail to cooperate, their crimes will be punished, the Palestinians claim.
On the Israeli side, the homes of peace advocates have been vandalized by a shadowy group called the Sicarites, named after militants who battled Roman rule in the Holy Land 2,000 years ago. Israeli police and intelligence agents are looking for members of the group. Officials say the Sicarites are a right-wing Jewish underground that opposes giving up land to Arabs in return for peace.
“I think it shows a despair of the right wing that they will lose,” said Yaron Ezrahi, a political theorist and peace activist. “It is not yet sufficient to intimidate, but the possibility is there.”
Ezrahi himself had received three death threats on the phone this year after making appearances on television.
The first vandalism attributed to the Sicarites occurred three months ago, when the home of a Tel Aviv peace activist was set afire. Afterward, purported members of the group defaced the walls of a cemetery on the eve of a scheduled visit by Prime Minster Yitzhak Shamir.
“Shamir is a traitor who will return Jewish lands to Arab hands,” the graffiti asserted.
They then set fire to the door of a pollster who published a survey saying that the majority of Israelis favored talks with the PLO.
Most recently, the group took responsibility for setting fire to the cars of two peace advocates and the apartment door of a liberal journalist, as well as for placing an unexploded firebomb near cooking gas canisters at the home of a leftist politician.
Ezrahi blames the intimidation, in part, on language used by Shamir and other rightist politicians suggesting that peace activists are traitors. Shamir recently said the peace movement is a “marginal” group helping Israel’s enemies.
“This kind of language sanctions violence, and it is most worrisome,” Ezrahi said.
Shamir has deplored the attacks on the property of peace activists.
The antagonism within the Israeli and Arab communities is being shadowed by direct violence between Israeli civilians and Arabs in the West Bank and Gaza.
Israeli settlers have begun to strike back regularly for Arab attacks on them or their property. Last week, settlers in Gaza wrecked greenhouses and burned a tractor belonging to Arab farmers not long after Arabs had set fire to a tomato-packing house at the settlement of Gush Katif.
Many among the 70,000 settlers in the occupied land have become frustrated over the persistence of the intifada and charge that the Israeli army is not doing enough to quell the uprising.
“We have entered a new era,” one settler told the Jerusalem Post newspaper. “We have stopped listening to all the army’s promises and attempts to calm us down. We’re fed up. We have finally decided to take action.”
In the West Bank, Arab residents of the village of Oseiran charged that settlers drove into the village and shot to death a 14-year-old boy during a rock-throwing disturbance last week. The shooting followed a revenge attack by settlers on Oseiran after someone hurled a gasoline bomb at a bus traveling on a nearby highway.
Under cover of night, settlers broke windows in the village and smashed rooftop solar-heating panels, army reports said. The shooting is under investigation.
The anti-Israeli activities of some West Bank rebels has also taken a more sinister turn. In Jericho, most of the attacks on soldiers and civilian traffic involve the use of firebombs, Arab residents say. And in Jerusalem, a Palestinian was killed when what police suspect was a homemade bomb exploded in his hands.
The suspicious mood in the West Bank and Gaza has also been deepened by the continued use of civilian disguises by the army and police in carrying out arrests and ambushes. The undercover work makes even casual travelers suspicious in the eyes of Arabs.
Last week, a foreign television crew filmed two police agents in Jerusalem arresting a group of youths and beating a 15-year-old girl after having approached them disguised as reporters. The car used by the policemen was marked “Press” in the style of journalists who work here.
On Monday, Israeli officials said that it is proper for police to use press identification on their cars and that the agents would continue to employ such ruses. Over the past several months, numerous cases of such anti- intifada disguises have come to light. At least two units of the army that specialize in undercover work have been identified, and army sources say other units have been deployed throughout the West Bank and Gaza.
Domestic and foreign reporters have complained to the Israeli government about the practice, saying it puts journalists at risk because Arabs may mistake them for government agents.