Losing Faith in the Intifada

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Times Staff Writer

When Abu Fahdi joined a Palestinian militant group and took up arms against Israel, he thought he was serving his people. Now he believes he did them only harm.

“We achieved nothing in all this time, and we lost so much,” said the baby-faced 29-year-old, who, because of his status as a fugitive, insisted on being identified by a nickname meaning “father of Fahdi.” “People hate us for that and wish we were dead.”

The young militant, a member of the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, is not alone in such thinking. Among Palestinians from all walks of life, there is a quiet but growing sentiment that their intifada, or uprising -- which broke out four years ago today -- has largely failed as an armed struggle, and lost its character as a popular resistance movement.


Moreover, many Palestinians fear that what has been, in effect, their military defeat at the hands of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has left them without leverage to extract political and territorial concessions that would help lay the groundwork for their hoped-for state.

The official Palestinian line is that the struggle continues. Veteran leader Yasser Arafat and old-line members of his Fatah faction insist that ordinary Palestinians are unbowed by the overwhelming degree of force that Israel has brought to bear in cities and towns all over the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Palestinian militant groups such as Hamas, Islamic Jihad and the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, which have been responsible for more than 100 suicide bombings over the past four years, also insist that they will continue to hit Israeli targets with all their strength.

But relentless Israeli strikes at the militant groups’ leaders and field operatives, together with the partial construction of a security barrier meant to seal off the West Bank, are credited with reducing such attacks inside Israel by 80%.

For some time now, influential figures in Palestinian society -- intellectuals, lawmakers, analysts, professionals and well-regarded local officials -- have been asserting, almost matter-of-factly, that the violent confrontation with Israeli forces has reached a dead end and their people must look to the future.

“We have witnessed the destruction of Palestinian society -- its civil institutions, its economy, its infrastructure,” said Zuhair Manasra, the governor of Bethlehem. “The result has been a complete disaster for the Palestinians, at all levels. Now we must think how to rebuild.”


This month, a poll commissioned by An Najah University in the northern West Bank city of Nablus -- traditionally a stronghold of militants -- found that more than two-thirds of Palestinians surveyed supported seeking a cease-fire arrangement with Israel. In the past, a similar proportion lent support to continued fighting.

The Palestinian prime minister, Ahmed Korei, made a statement last week that was extraordinary in its implicit assumption that the post-conflict phase is already underway. Interviewed on Israel Radio, Korei spoke of the need to rehabilitate members of the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, an armed offshoot of Arafat’s political faction.

“The Al Aqsa Brigades are part of Fatah, and we are ready to absorb them and deal with them, but for this to happen, I must ask that Israel guarantee their security,” he said. “As long as Israel continues to hunt them and kill them and make their life difficult, this won’t happen.”

Abu Fahdi is a case in point. He joined Al Aqsa about five months after the outbreak of the intifada -- spurred, he said, by a surge of civilian deaths during Israeli military operations in his West Bank hometown, which he did not want named.

“The Israelis are the ones who started it all, by coming to our towns and our homes,” he said.

All those enlisting were veterans, in their childhood or early teenage years, of the first Palestinian intifada, which raged from 1987 to 1993. In that conflict, young Palestinian stone throwers -- not heavily armed militant groups or suicide bombers -- were a driving force.


Beginning in 2001, Abu Fahdi took part in dozens of attacks against Israelis, mainly shooting at cars on West Bank roads used primarily by Jewish settlers. Although he fired at such vehicles indiscriminately, he remembers being horrified when one of his fellow gunmen managed to kill three members of an Israeli family.

Neither he nor most of his comrades in arms, he insists, had envisioned a conflict that would drag on this long or bring so much suffering to both sides. Casualty figures are disputed, but more than 1,000 Israelis and 3,000 Palestinians have died in the intifada, with the number of injured about 10 times that.

From the beginning, civilians were caught squarely in the middle by the tactics of Palestinian militants. Abu Fahdi described the use of thickly populated areas as cover when staging attacks.

“It made me uneasy when we would use someone’s house to fire at [Jewish targets] and know that the army would shoot back at the families in the area or destroy the home,” he said. “But we thought it was something that had to be done in the short term, in order to inflict blows.”

During the first year of the intifada, Israel for the first time began routinely employing battlefield weapons such as tanks, heavy artillery, helicopter gunships and F-16 fighter planes in densely populated parts of the West Bank and Gaza Strip. They were aimed at Palestinian militants but exacted a heavy civilian toll.

Israeli civilians, meanwhile, bore the brunt of Palestinian suicide bombings, which peaked in the spring of 2002 and triggered the Israeli military’s seizure of nearly all of the West Bank’s population centers.


With the Israeli campaign of arrests and “targeted killings” having thinned the ranks of the militant organizations, teenagers and women are increasingly recruited to carry out attacks. A 19-year-old woman blew herself up in Jerusalem last week, killing two border policemen. In the last week, authorities have announced two abortive bomb plots involving 15-year-old Palestinian boys.

Senior Israeli military officials say that unless they keep a tight grip on Palestinian towns, they risk a return to near-constant suicide attacks. At the same time, they are keenly aware of the long-term danger of holding a population under oppressive conditions.

Maj. Gen Dan Halutz, the Israeli military’s deputy chief of staff, was asked last week by the Yediot Aharonot newspaper whether Israel would have to maintain its military posture -- with troops deployed in force all over the West Bank -- into a fifth year.

“Yes, and if you ask me about 2006, I have nothing to indicate that the conflict won’t enter a sixth year, either,” he replied.

Although dogged resistance to the Israeli occupation helped keep the Palestinian hope for statehood in the world spotlight, many now believe that the visible public support for suicide bombings was a crucial error.

“In a post-9/11 world, that could only harm our cause,” said Manasra, the Bethlehem governor.


Israeli analysts credit the government’s military and intelligence branches with containing a highly motivated guerrilla-style insurgency -- no small task, as American forces in Iraq have learned -- but warn that there is no substitute for a long-term political solution.

Two prominent Israeli journalists, Amos Harel and Avi Issacharoff, authors of a much-discussed new book on the intifada, drew similar conclusions about the pitfalls of short-term victory. Their title is telling: “How We Won and Why We Lost the War With the Palestinians.”

The conflict has coincided with a series of failed or failing diplomatic initiatives, most notably the “road map” peace plan, which was put forth with tremendous fanfare by the Bush administration, among others. At this point, talks between Israel and the Palestinians have completely broken down, and Sharon is under little U.S. pressure to return to the table.

Despite the devastated social landscape left by four years of intense fighting, some Palestinian political figures believe it will ultimately pave the way for crucial reforms.

“The first intifada gave birth to Hamas,” said Dr. Mustafa Barghouti, a leader of the Palestinian National Initiative. “The second intifada is bringing to life a new option, a Palestinian democratic trend.... It is consolidating a new young leadership.”

But throughout the turmoil, Arafat has managed to hold tight to power and maintain iconic status in the eyes of many Palestinians. Sharon continues to threaten to remove him but has so far been restrained by the United States from ordering Arafat’s expulsion or assassination.


The coming year will be pivotal to the success or failure of Sharon’s initiative to withdraw from the Gaza Strip. Both sides see opportunity as well as peril in the plan: An Israeli pullout could provide either a prototype for Palestinian self-governance or usher in chaotic infighting among Palestinian factions.

But even in Gaza, traditionally a more radical region than the West Bank, groups such as Hamas have been looking for a way to transform themselves into political movements rather than guerrilla militias.

The intifada’s foot soldiers are reassessing their lives as well. One day last week, Abu Fahdi was speaking to a journalist as reports of a suicide bombing flashed on the television screen. He shook his head.

“I used to think that attacks like this would hasten our victory,” he said. “Now I only think that attacks like this will hasten my arrest or my death.”