Shots in the dark sounded in this middle-class university town last week and Palestinian observers began suggesting that the wave of Arab violence directed at Israelis was not a passing fever but a trend.
Analysts disagree on whether the armed violence is directed or spontaneous. But they concur that the incidents of shooting and knifing are changing the face of the intifada, or Arab uprising. They fear that the outbreak signals the end of the “white” intifada, as the uprising is known, the one marked by the limited violence of hurled stones and efforts at civil disobedience.
What will follow is still at issue, but it is clear that moderate voices of the uprising have been sidelined in the conflict, which marks its third anniversary Sunday.
Last week, in a plea for concrete political steps to reduce Israeli-Palestinian tension, Palestinian political leader Faisal Husseini told an Israeli audience: “We are living in the jungle. In a year or two, perhaps you will not have me to talk to but someone else, someone versed in the ways of the jungle.”
Husseini, who is considered the voice of the moderates, insisted that armed violence is still the work of out-of-control individuals. But he warned: “Each day, the question stands whether this is the way to go.”
The Palestine Liberation Organization is leaning toward armed violence, some observers contend. Daoud Kutab, a nationalist journalist, commented: “There is pressure within the PLO for the use of arms. Moderates face the problem of condemning the violence and losing support in the street or going along with it and losing Israeli and international sympathy.”
A leaflet from the pro-PLO underground leaders of the uprising urged Palestinians this week to use “all means” in battling the Israelis. It was widely interpreted as a call for the use of guns.
Three nighttime shootings in 24 hours jarred moderate Palestinian activists. In one, gunmen sprayed an Israeli bus carrying settlers north of Ramallah, wounding three passengers. The Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, a Marxist PLO faction, claimed responsibility for the attack.
“It is important to revise Palestinian policies, tactics and practices and to step up the intifada on the economic and military level and to support it with fire,” a communique from the organization said.
In a second incident, someone fired on an army jeep from the direction of a mosque in Ramallah. And in the third, a Ramallah pharmacist, Hussein Saed, was found shot to death in his store.
Saed was not involved in politics and no motive for his killing was evident. But Palestinian observers took his death to mean that Palestinian frustrations could soon turn into a form of class warfare as economic hardships worsen.
In any event, at least some Palestinian analysts believe that the PLO is urging an escalation of violence to ensure that the uprising remains a focus of attention and is not swallowed up by the global focus on the Persian Gulf.
“If the intifada cools, it is no good,” said a well-informed political analyst here, who asked that his name not be published.
Until now, almost all Palestinians attributed armed violence to passions unleashed by the October killings of 20 Palestinians by police at Jerusalem’s Al Aqsa mosque. The bloodshed set off a wave of intercommunal violence between Jews and Arabs, and the fever has lasted longer than expected.
For most of the past year, the intifada has been on a helter-skelter search for a new direction without much success. “The mood is grim,” said Bernard Sabella, a Bethlehem University professor.
Early in the year, it appeared that peace talks might get under way through an American-devised plan and the intifada would have achieved a major goal. That possibility fell apart when Israel’s Labor Party, led by doves, failed to seize power from the rightist Likud, led by Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, who rejected talks.
Palestinians began to sense that the intifada had reached the limit of its power to move events and some activists began to look outside for inspiration. It came in the person of Iraq’s Saddam Hussein.
In April, Hussein pledged to burn half of Israel with chemical weapons if attacked and became an instant hero among frustrated Palestinians. With his invasion of Kuwait, Hussein rose higher in esteem, although certain harsh realities began to set in. Economically, the Palestinians suffered from cutbacks in money sent from relatives who work in Kuwait and from a reduction in financial support from Arab countries opposed to Hussein.
Fatigue has led to fewer mass rallies and mass activities in the uprising. Small groups carry on the bulk of visible resistance, including the throwing of stones at Israeli traffic.
Commercial strikes are still called and superficially adhered to but, more and more, stores stay open through the back door and workers labor in secret. The notion of civil disobedience--setting up alternative institutions to Israeli rule, resistance to Israeli bureaucracy and taxes--became a dead letter. Danny Rubenstein, an Israeli reporter who has followed the intifada, wrote: “This isn’t the intifada we knew. Palestinian organizations have gone back to setting bombs and carrying out armed attacks; civil disobedience has died out.”
But if not violence, what will be the next phase of the intifada ? Palestinians say everything is on hold until the gulf crisis ends. “All eyes are on Saddam Hussein,” said political scientist Mahdi Abdul Hadi.
Israel is debating whether the spate of shootings reflects impulse or plan. Defense Minister Moshe Arens has attributed the spasm to growing Islamic fundamentalism and enthusiasm aroused by Saddam Hussein. Whatever the cause, he issued a blunt warning this week: “Israel will shoot back.”