Israel's latest military offensive in the West Bank, code-named Defensive Wall, was met with fierce armed resistance, as Palestinians fought house to house and sometimes hand to hand to repulse the reconquest of their towns, villages and refugee camps. Some of the young defenders are guerrillas from new Palestinian militias forged by the intifada, others are Palestinian Authority police officers and many are both.
"This is our Karameh," said one in Jenin. Karameh, a village on the East Bank of the Jordan River, is the site of a battle fought between the Israeli army and Palestinian guerrillas in March 1968. Although the army took the village, the heroic resistance put up by the Palestinians consecrated Yasir Arafat and his Fatah movement as the undisputed leadership of the Palestinian cause. One year later Arafat was elected chairman of the PLO. He converted the movement from a front for Arab regimes into an authentic representative of Palestinian nationalism.
Many believe a similar changing of the guard has occurred during the eighteen months of the latest uprising, with leadership gradually passing from a Palestinian Authority that once ruled over the Palestinian areas to armed and cross-factional militias that now, alone, defend them. Formed in the uprising's first months as a defense against army and settler incursions, Fatah-led militias like the Popular Resistance Committees (PRC) in Gaza and the Al Aqsa Brigades in the West Bank have seen their power and legitimacy soar in inverse ratio to the collapse of the PA's governing and military institutions after a wave of Israeli assaults. As a result, former officers in PA police forces have swelled the militias' ranks.
This transformation has accelerated during Ariel Sharon's premiership. Following his election in February last year--and with Arafat's oblique blessing--the Palestinian armed factions united behind one policy: to destroy Sharon by creating a "balance of terror" with the occupation, a phrase borrowed from Hezbollah's triumphant resistance to Israel's occupation in south Lebanon. "We have to convince Israelis that whatever else Sharon brings them, it won't be security," says Jamal Abu Samhandanah, a PRC leader.
The strategy has exacted a brutal toll. Nearly 2,000 Palestinians and 400 Israelis have been killed in the current conflict, as Sharon's exclusively military solutions went from bombardment to reoccupation, and Palestinian resistance went from guerrilla warfare in the occupied territories to suicide bombings in Israel, executed recently as much by Fatah as by the Islamists of Hamas and Islamic Jihad.
The politics of Palestine's new young guard is as inchoate as the local militias that it comprises. But it opposes the PA-Israeli security cooperation and US-led diplomacy of the Oslo peace process, favoring instead armed struggle and alliances with the Arab world, including the million or so Palestinian citizens of Israel. One militia leader in Bethlehem said the most suitable response to Israel's current assault would be "resistance in Israel's cities and mayhem from the Galilee to Cairo."
Overwhelmingly from village and refugee backgrounds, the young guard is critical of PA mismanagement and corruption and of an Oslo leadership they believe reaped the spoils of the peace process without delivering on Palestinian aspirations to statehood, independence and Israeli withdrawal. But they are loyal to Arafat, and rarely more so than now: The army's siege on the Palestinian leader's compound in Ramallah is seen as a symbol of the plight of every Palestinian. "We think Arafat and all the leaders around him compromised too much in the negotiations. But as long as Sharon acts against him, we will be with Arafat. We will not let Israel decide the Palestinian leadership," says Samhandanah.
The young fighters are positioning for leadership in the post-Arafat era, whether this comes through his natural demise or through forced removal by Israel. The contours of the contest are already clear: between the historic Oslo leadership that seeks a negotiated settlement courtesy of US and international intervention, and a resistance vowing that the intifada will end only with independence, even if that means the destruction of what is left of the PA. Arafat has maintained his leadership by balancing between the two wings; he will side with the winner, say Palestinian analysts.
If Sharon succeeds in reimposing military rule throughout the occupied territories, the Palestinian national leadership will revert to what it was after Karameh, this time laced with a strong Islamist current. It will be young, underground, armed, refugee-based, perhaps more democratic and certainly more radical. It will take the Palestinian-Israeli conflict back three decades, and perhaps further.