Fields of Thorns
The Palestinian uprising in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, which in late September 2000 began as a wave of popular protest against Ariel Sharon's belligerent incursion into Jerusalem's sacred Haram al-Sharif, has developed into a full-fledged war of attrition against the Israeli occupation, which rather ironically paved the aggressive right-wing leader's path to power.
The gradual "Lebanonization" of the occupied territories during the Al-Aqsa Intifada, in which the activities of increasingly effective armed cells have been supplanting civil forms of resistance, poses a challenge to Israel, which, in the context of its stated territorial ambitions and the external constraints upon its conduct, outgoing Prime Minister Ehud Barak was incapable of resolving. For all his bluster about refusing to negotiate under fire, putting an end to Palestinian "violence and terror" and achieving a "peace for generations," Sharon's dilemma is equally intractable. Any government he forms will prove at least as unwilling to withdraw to the June 1967 boundaries as its predecessor, and thereby will insure the continuation of the uprising. If Sharon opts instead to destroy the Palestinian Authority (PA) in an updated version of the regional strategy attempted during the 1982 invasion of Lebanon, he will once again create the conditions for the ascendancy of a more radical and uncompromising adversary--with the distinction that the Palestinian variant will be based in Hebron, Jerusalem and the Palestinian town of Umm al-Fahm within Israel rather than in Lebanon's Baalbek and Beirut. And in contrast to 1982, open warfare with the Palestinian leadership in 2001 will for Israel entail significant regional (and perhaps international) costs.
The above notwithstanding, the prospects for a successful Palestinian guerrilla campaign remain dim. Palestinian efforts are nowhere near as sophisticated as those of Hezbollah in Lebanon, and Israel is prepared to sustain much greater losses in the occupied Palestinian territories than it was in Lebanon. At the same time, the militarization of the uprising is marginalizing the role of Palestinian society and thus squandering the potential contribution of a mobilized population; as the PA and Palestinian civil society are for different reasons gripped by serious paralysis, Israel's punitive sanctions and the PA's haphazard response have stretched Palestinians to the breaking point.
As the possibilities for either a permanent Israeli-Palestinian settlement or a resumption of interim arrangements continue to recede, and those of a wider regional conflagration remain on the rise, a prolonged low-intensity conflict propelled by yet unable to rupture the political stalemate, punctuated by occasional bouts of intensified bloodletting, domestic chaos (whether Palestinian or Israeli) and futile diplomacy, remains the most likely scenario. On an almost daily basis, unarmed Palestinian youths trek to the boundaries separating areas under Palestinian and Israeli security control to take on armed Israeli soldiers encased in protective gear and positioned behind barriers or in fortified locations. Unlike the 1987-93 intifada, during which the military was deployed within Palestinian towns and such confrontations could occur almost anywhere at virtually any time, the current clashes generally commence at around noon at fixed points on the outskirts of Palestinian towns such as the City Inn junction in northern Al-Bira, or along other clear lines of demarcation such as central Hebron or Martyrs' Junction (Netzarim) south of Gaza City.
These are not the mass demonstrations of the uprising's early weeks, in which hundreds and often thousands of Palestinian demonstrators launched frontal attacks upon Israeli positions with the intention of overwhelming them and, determined and disorganized in equal measure, suffered dozens of dead and thousands of wounded in the process. Rather, and with increasingly few exceptions, these have become ritualized confrontations. Separated by more or less permanent barricades erected by the Palestinians and left in place by the Israelis, groups of youths typically numbering in the dozens approach smaller concentrations of soldiers to throw stones, bottles and the occasional firebomb. Their purpose is to remind Israel, the world and also their own leaders that Palestinians will continue to resist the occupation until it ends, and the soldiers confront them in order to demonstrate just as clearly that they have no intention of being involuntarily dislodged.
Shortly before or after the first stone is thrown, the soldiers begin firing a barrage of tear-gas canisters (most of which are thrown right back) and fairly quickly begin supplementing their toxic ordnance with volleys of rubber bullets and spherical metal bullets (covered in a negligibly thin layer of plastic), which can be lethal if fired--as often they are--directly at the head or upper body from close range. Despite the gross imbalance of power, and with breathtaking courage that numerous observers have termed suicidal, the youths continue advancing, eventually and inevitably crossing a threshold at which point the soldiers begin firing live, high-velocity bullets, which fragment upon impact and are a surgeon's nightmare. On other occasions, and particularly in the Gaza Strip, trigger-happy conscripts eagerly dispense with this intifada protocol and almost immediately resort to live ammunition, aiming to permanently maim and kill rather than temporarily disable. It is doubtful a single Palestinian shot dead under such circumstances posed a genuine threat to the life of an Israeli soldier. Nevertheless, the Israeli military--which, in contrast to the previous intifada, has done away with the pretense of investigating the conduct of its own soldiers--has in addition to the above pattern responded to such demonstrations with snipers operating at long range (and at times equipped with silencers), as well as rapid automatic gunfire indiscriminate enough to wound journalists and kill ambulance personnel.
With increasing regularity, the ritual is brought to a conclusion by a barrage of 500-millimeter or 800-millimeter bullets (the casing of the latter easily accommodates a human thumb), or several tank shells directed at nearby buildings. Sometimes these are fired without provocation; on other occasions they are in response to Palestinian gunmen who feel or are compelled to intervene when the situation gets particularly gruesome. In contrast to a number of incidents during the uprising's early phases, the gunmen no longer fire from within the crowd.
As night falls, and increasingly during the day as well, it is these armed cadres who are defining the nature of Palestinian resistance to Israeli occupation. Their cells include Palestinian security personnel, Fatah activists (who are often one and the same) and almost certainly members of the Islamist and secular opposition as well (notably Islamic Jihad), and they operate under previously unknown names such as the Al-Aqsa Martyrs' Brigade (kata'ib shuhada' al-aqsa) and Forces of Badr (quwwat badr). Their weapon of choice is the sniper's bullet and roadside bomb, and more recently the occasional mortar round and antitank missile. Their preferred tactic is hit and run, and their proclaimed strategy of transforming Israel's most sensitive assets in the occupied territories into its greatest liabilities is as simple as it can be effective.