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.