Intifada is going nowhere, weary Palestinians say

Click to follow
The Independent Online

The villagers of Qaryut are fed up. They are tired of the Israeli soldiers who prevent their men travelling out of the hills of the West Bank to labouring jobs in Israel. They are fed up being shot at and harassed by Jewish settlers living behind razor wire in the clusters of red-roofed Toytown villas near by.

The villagers of Qaryut are fed up. They are tired of the Israeli soldiers who prevent their men travelling out of the hills of the West Bank to labouring jobs in Israel. They are fed up being shot at and harassed by Jewish settlers living behind razor wire in the clusters of red-roofed Toytown villas near by.

They have had enough of stories of seriously ill Palestinians dying at roadblocks because they are unable to make it to hospital in time, and of the rising list of their countrymen shot dead or maimed by the Israeli troops.

But some are feeling exasperation and despair on a new and very different front. They are the ones fed up with the people behind the Palestinian intifada, the uprising which is supposed to free them from this misery and liberate their land.

"We are like a herd without shepherds," said Kamal Moussar, 32, a Fatah activist and local blacksmith. "At the beginning we thought the intifada would lead to something, but now it seems to be going nowhere. There is no hope that it will change anything."

Israel, he said, is still building more settlements on Arab land; Arab nations, convening for a summit in Jordan next week, are doing little to help their Palestinian neighbours. And the Palestinian Authority is giving only patchy support to the people.

"It is chaotic," Mr Moussar said. "Sometimes Hamas takes action, sometimes Fatah. But there seems to be no central leadership that plans these actions. There should be one central leader, who operates according to one strategy."

Other villagers agreed. Sulliman Khatib is a former cloth merchant, now forced to work as a ploughman, who says the Israeli government stole his 50 acres of almond groves to build a nearby settlement. "If the Palestinian Authority can liberate my stolen land, I will recognise it," he says sourly. "If they don't, I won't."

Next week the Palestinian intifada will be six months old. There is no sign of an end to the violence, or of a lessening of the hostilities that underpin it. But attitudes to the conflict are changing, on the ground and in Palestinian political circles. The sentiments expressed in Qaryut, a village of 2,000 people about 10 miles south of Nablus, appear to be widespread.

In particular, there is growing unease over how it has turned from a popular uprising into a narrower armed conflict, conducted by groups remote from the bulk of the people.

In the past three months, public participation in demonstrations and marches has dwindled steadily. What began as a popular revolt against Israel's occupation, and against the failure of the Oslo negotiations to end it, has turned into a murky guerrilla war, beyond the control of any single entity.

There is concern among the Palestinian intelligentsia that this is causing them to lose the publicity battle in the international arena. During the trip by Israel's Premier, Ariel Sharon, to Washington this week, he was able, brazenly, to present the conflict as a war in which his own army was merely defending itself, and Israelis at large, from bombings and drive-by shootings.

This helps the Israel Defence Forces to evade condemnation for its misdeeds, which range from excessive retaliatory attacks to the collective punishment of three million people, an openly admitted policy of extra-judicial executions and the killing, almost daily, of unarmed Arabs.

A move to recast the intifada as a peaceful popularist movement has been evident. Singing and playing instruments, Palestinian performing artists demonstrated at an Israeli checkpoint north of Jerusalem last weekend while Israeli troops in tanks watched helplessly as a civilian demonstrators took over a roadblock in Ramallah.

The underlying idea is to confront Mr Sharon with an uncomfortable choice: end the siege and the shootings and the violence is over, or be cast as a brutal oppressor using a military force against non-violent civilian demonstrators.

The world has largely shrugged its shoulders at the spectacle of Israeli troops shooting youngsters hurling rocks. But shooting at crowds of guitar-playing students would be harder to ignore. There was a glimpse of this a few days ago when a march by Arab women, led by Dr Hanan Ashrawi, made headlines on TV worldwide after Israeli troops - for no good reason - hurled stun grenades into its midst.

Dr Ashrawi is one of the most vocal of a coterie of Palestinian academics, civic leaders and political activists now supporting a shift to a broader, non-violent intifada.

"I think the way to disarm a violent military occupation is not by adopting its methods, but by taking the moral high ground," she said. "Violence is the easiest recourse, but to take risks as civilians is more difficult. This is how the first intifada was, and how the present one started out."

This campaign gained momentum this week when Marwan Barghouti, Fatah's secretary general on the West Bank - and one of the leading public players in the intifada - partly endorsed it.

He said he wanted the public's role to be broadened, for example, by involving student and trade union organisations, and called for more emphasis on non-violent protest. He also said the name of the umbrella organisation behind the uprising would be changed from the "National-Islamic Leadership of the Intifada" to the "Popular Committee of the Intifada".

Could it be a turning point in the conflict? Perhaps. But there are snares. A policy of non-violent protest is unlikely to be supported by all Palestinians, particularly the most militant guerrilla groups, such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad. It may only take a bombing, or another bout of killings by the Israeli army, for the fighting to resume at full-pelt.

The death toll so far in the West Bank and Gaza uprising stands at more than 400 - at least 348 Palestinians, 66 Israelis and 13 Israeli Arabs.